Bears

Crawford conquering mental side of his game

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Crawford conquering mental side of his game

The puck whizzed by Corey Crawford and was in the back of his net barely 30 seconds into the first period on Wednesday night. It wasnt really Crawfords fault, but it was nevertheless a tough one to give up that quickly.

A few weeks ago, when Crawford was struggling, giving up that goal likely wouldve led to giving up a few more. But Crawford buckled down after that early one and never allowed the Vancouver Canucks another one in the Blackhawks 2-1 overtime victory. Its another sign that the goaltender is regaining the game that he had his rookie season.

Its not the way you want to start the game, the first shot in. But I was able to battle back, get myself into the game, Crawford said. Our defense was pretty good for most of the game and didnt give up much.

And Crawford gave up even less. He came up biggest in the third period, when the Canucks went on a late charge and threw 14 shots at him.

I thought he rebounded, I thought he responded, coach Joel Quenneville said.

Crawford said hes never lost confidence this season, but it certainly looked like it was wavering during his slumps. Crawfords ridden the goaltending merry-go-round this season: hes had the net, gotten pulled, lost the net, waited for another chance, got it back again and he repeated that sequence at least once.

But since Crawfords latest second chance when he relieved Ray Emery and claimed the shootout victory against the St. Louis Blues on March 13 hes been stellar. In his last five appearances, Crawfords allowed just five goals on 107 shots.

(My confidence) has been the same as all year, Crawford said Wednesday night. Ive made a couple adjustments to my game that we talked about before and Im seeing the puck well and thats huge.

And last night may have been a huge step, too. Crawford wasnt flustered by the quick goal, wasnt getting away from the adjustments hes made.

When Crawford took over the No. 1 goaltending job in the second half of last season, he was showing this type of confidence. He wasnt giving up much, he was dependable and he wasnt rattled easily. Crawfords starting to show that side again.

Thats one of those things where hes strong mentally, Marian Hossa said. You can tell by (Wednesday), especially against a team like Vancouver. After that (first goal) he played unbelievable. Thats huge for him and for us.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?