He’s back: Corey Crawford’s breakthrough just what Blackhawks need
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Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford missed this feeling. Every part of it.
He skated off the ice Saturday in Dallas with triumphant confidence after a game that seemed to signal he’s back. There was playoff-like tension for the Hawks, who are going all-out for the minuscule chance of claiming a wild card, and Crawford played tremendously to help them beat the Stars 2-1.
He spent two months working his way back from a concussion in semi-isolation, and his return was choppy. He gave up six goals in a humiliating loss to the Kings on March 2. But this was the Crow the Hawks know and need.
‘‘I felt way faster,’’ he said. ‘‘Reading the plays and being a little bit more aggressive. Just working hard.’’
The meandering Hawks were looking for a spark after sinking from the second wild card to nine points back, and Crawford provided one.
He saved 26 of 27 shots, including 19 in a row at the end. He came through on 14 of 15 high-danger shots, according to Natural Stat Trick, and handled everything from point-blank looks to tip-in tries in the crease to breaking up a two-on-one rush that could have tied the score in the final minutes.
Crawford was finally at ease in the net, feeling like himself after giving up 13 goals and posting an .865 save percentage in his first three starts. It was a breakthrough for him and a game-changer for the Hawks.
‘‘Happy for him,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said. ‘‘He’s so under control. Nothing bothers him. That’s important for our team. Obviously, he’s had a lot of success, and part of why he’s so good is he’s unflappable in there. He helps us.’’
That’s the ideal temperament for a high-stress homestretch.
If Crawford can keep it up, it’s perfect timing. The victory Saturday moved the Hawks seven points behind the Wild for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with 14 games left. They face the Coyotes, who are one point out, Monday at the United Center.
‘‘He’s a guy who can carry you,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘So we’ll see.’’
The Hawks have been unstable in net all season and expect to miss backup Cam Ward at least another week because of a knee injury. They’ve been shaky defensively in general, and there are few assignments in the NHL more challenging than playing goalie in Chicago.
Even since their mid-December turnaround — the stretch of the season when things have been going reasonably well — the Hawks have allowed a league-high 36.2 shots on goal per game. Opponents are averaging 12.2 high-danger scoring chances against them, also the most in the NHL.
They weren’t perfect Saturday, but they were better. The 27 shots on goal allowed represented one of the Hawks’ top games, and they smothered the Stars — five shots, two high-danger chances — with the game on the line in the third period.
‘‘That’s a big step for us, just being solid defensively,’’ said Connor Murphy, who had seven of the Hawks’ 17 blocked shots. ‘‘I don’t think we were as clean as we wanted to be with the puck in transition at times, but [we had] guys playing on the right side of it and blocking pucks and really playing hard for Crow.’’
If the defense keeps riding that inspiration and Crawford is hitting his stride, the Hawks’ wild-card hopes suddenly seem slightly less crazy.