Playoffs or not, Jeremy Colliton has Blackhawks headed in the right direction
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Captain Jonathan Toews sounded almost apologetic after the Blackhawks needed goalie Corey Crawford to make 48 saves to beat the Canadiens on Saturday in Montreal to complete a sweep of a two-game road trip that started in Toronto.
‘‘Those are two gutty wins where we’re doing whatever it takes to win,’’ Toews said. ‘‘Even if it’s ugly, we don’t care. You want to get two points in the other team’s building. I think we showed that. We did the little things we had to.’’
Ugly? Compared to the dark days of the transition from Joel Quenneville to Jeremy Colliton in November and December, the victories against the Maple Leafs and Canadiens were works of art. Even in allowing 47 shots against the Leafs — 29 of them in the third period after Crawford left with an illness — and 48 against the Canadiens, the Hawks were solid defensively, with far fewer of the egregious turnovers that led to prime scoring chances in the early days of the Colliton era.
Even in leaning on Crawford to bail them out against the Canadiens, the Hawks showed some defensive spunk. They blocked nine shots in the final 10 minutes. After allowing 18 shots in the first 14:38 of the third period, they didn’t allow a shot in the final 5:22. Blocked shots by David Kampf, Slater Koekkoek, Toews and Artem Anisimov helped stymie the Canadiens to secure the victory.
The odds still are against the Hawks (73 points) making the playoffs. They are five points behind the Coyotes, four behind the Wild and one behind the Avalanche for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, but they have a game in hand on the Coyotes and Avalanche and two on the Wild.
Anything is possible with Crawford in a groove, however. He is 4-0 with a 0.82 goals-against average and a .975 save percentage in his last four starts. But even if the Hawks fail to make the playoffs, they at least are back on their feet, with a foundation to build on and young players such as Dylan Strome, Brendan Perlini and Erik Gustafsson with room for growth.
That’s a far cry from where they were in November and December, when they were in a 4-17-4 rut
under Quenneville (0-4-1) and Colliton (4-13-3). At that point, they were in such a free fall that it didn’t appear they would snap out of it. And general manager Stan Bowman was coming into the crosshairs of Hawks fans.
Now the Hawks are all but assured of entering the 2019-20 season with the arrow pointing up. They figure to benefit from a full offseason and preseason with Colliton in charge. And based on the way this team — eventually — has responded to Colliton, it appears Bowman has the right guy in charge.
In fact, had he made the coaching change last offseason, the smoother transition likely would have the Hawks firmly in the playoffs right now. But that is absolutely a second-guess. Quenneville’s three-Stanley Cup track record earned him the right to coach a declining team back into contention. Consider this difficult season the price of success.
‘‘We’ve improved a lot as the year’s going on,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘I think we’re going to continue to improve. There’s a lot there. There’s still a lot available for us to build our game. We’re running out of games to make it, but I feel like we’re nowhere near where we were in November [and] December. We’ve just got to keep going.’’