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New life for Corey Crawford, and the Blackhawks breathe easier

To be a goalie is to be the target for target practice, the easy excuse for every goal and the person most likely to be benched. Yet goalies eat their gruel and ask for more.

Saturday was another reminder of the job’s wild extremes and
why, given a choice, an aspiring goalie might want to seek more stable employment, such as bomb defuser.

Scott Darling, the biggest sports story in Chicago a few days ago, was pulled after allowing three goals in the first period and likely won’t see the ice again during the playoffs. Corey Crawford, treated like a communicable disease around town last week, took Darling’s place to huge roars at the United Center and even louder ones when the Blackhawks came back to beat the Nashville Predators 4-3 and advance to the next round of the playoffs.

It would be a miracle if neither of these guys has major trust issues in life.

There would seem to be no turning back now for coach Joel Quenneville as it concerns his goalies. Crawford replaced Darling with 11 minutes, 16 seconds left in the first period, and it will be a shocker if we see Darling again in the playoffs. A coach can’t keep yo-yoing his goalies like this. Make a decision and stick with it.

In the end, when the horn went off, there seemed to be extra meaning in the hugs that teammates gave Crawford. First Duncan Keith, who scored the winning goal, then the rest of the Hawks, who know what Crawford has been through.

In the locker room afterward, Crawford looked like a combination of relieved and weary. Asked how a goalie deals with the ups and downs of life, he was succinct.

‘‘Just got to have a brutal memory like I do, I guess,’’ he said.

Now is the time to stay with the guy who helped carry you through the regular season. Darling wasn’t to blame for the Predators’ quick 3-1 lead, though he saw only 12 shots. The defense in front of him was atrocious. But he didn’t rise to the challenge, either, and the Hawks needed someone better in the net to make up for the shortcomings in front of him.

Enter Crawford. He seemed to calm his teammates down and allowed them to get down to the business of making the game a game. And a crazy first period commenced to get a little crazier. Jonathan Toews cut the Hawks’ deficit to 3-2 on a power-play goal, though it was Patrick Sharp who gets credit for delaying his shot to get more traffic in front of the net.

If you were of the mind that a 3-2 lead was safe with eight seconds left in the period, you were out of your mind. Brad Richards won a faceoff, and Keith inched the puck back to Patrick Kane, who whipped a shot past Predators goalie Pekka Rinne to tie the score with six seconds left.

No one scored in those final six seconds. I have no explanation for that. But it was nice of the NHL to put in a shot clock for the first period.

And, this being hockey, nobody scored in the second period. It’s as if, embarrassed by the goal-a-palooza, everybody buttoned up, obeyed all rules and ate their vegetables.

Crawford has been too easy a bull’s-eye. Even though he helped the Hawks win a Stanley Cup in 2013 and even though the team tied for the fewest goals allowed this season, lots of fans and critics had no problem ripping him for struggling earlier in the series. Like Darling, he didn’t get a lot of help from his defense. This is one of the few sports in which one of your key players can be benched at the most important time of the season.

‘‘You saw in the first game there with [Crawford], it wasn’t really his fault on any of the goals, and the same thing with Darling [on Saturday],’’ Kane said.

After a furious Hawks attack late in third, Keith waited and waited and waited some more, then sent a slap shot from the blue line past Rinne. Game. Series.

Keith’s heroics aside, this was the replacement goalie’s day.

‘‘When I went in, our team completely took over,’’ said Crawford, who faced only 13
shots, thanks to the clampdown on defense.

Told by a reporter that he figured to be Hawks’ goalie going forward in the playoffs, Crawford gave the only answer a goalie would give.

‘‘I don’t know,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t know. We’ll see.’’

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com
Twitter: @MorrisseyCST