Blackhawks

Can Blackhawks count on Corey Crawford returning to top form?

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USA TODAY

Can Blackhawks count on Corey Crawford returning to top form?

The Blackhawks have repeatedly stated that they expect Corey Crawford to be 100 percent healthy and ready to go by training camp after missing the final 47 games of this season with an upper-body injury.

That's Step 1.

Step 2 is projecting whether or not he can return to an elite level.

It's a fair question to wonder and an even greater challenge to figure out, because the Blackhawks saw down the stretch how important he is to their team.

"None of us can predict the future, so I'm not going to get into the, 'How do I know' anything," general manager Stan Bowman said. "We have expectations that he's going to be the same goalie that he's been. I think if you look back at the last probably three to four seasons, Corey's been getting better every year. You look back at where he was in 2013 and I think there's no way we win the Stanley Cup that year or in 2015 [without him]."

Crawford was 16-9-2 with a .929 save percentage in 28 appearances before going down. J-F Berube, Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass and Collin Delia combined to go 17-30-8 with a .902 save percentage in Crawford's absence. The drop-off was noticeable, especially when it came to quality scoring chances allowed.

Since 2012-13, Crawford has the third-best high-danger save percentage (81.48) at 5-on-5 among goaltenders who have appeared in at least 250 games over that span, according to corsica.hockey. Only Sergei Bobrovsky (83.18) and Carey Price (82.63) are above him.

That's great company.

"Stan mentioned the importance of him and what he has been to our team and our organization," coach Joel Quenneville said. "You can just see from the way things went this year how valuable he really is. That stuff will all be discussed as we're going forward here.

"He's on the right track. He's close to being ready to go. Several more months now to prepare for the season. Knowing that ingredient to our team is certainly a big piece to our success and our team as well. But we look forward to that being in place and Crow ready to be a part of it."

Another factor to consider is that Crawford will turn 34 in the middle of next season. Clearly, he's not getting any younger. Nobody is.

But goaltenders tend to age well and recent history supports that. Look no further than some of the current active netminders.

Henrik Lundqvist, 36, had a .915 save percentage in his 13th season, which wasn't far off from his career average of .920 despite being a part of a New York Rangers team that finished with the eighth-worst record.

Pekka Rinne, 35, will likely win his first Vezina Trophy for top goaltender after posting a 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 goals against average, .927 save percentage and eight shutouts in his 12th year.

Marc-Andre Fleury is 33, but he's got lots of mileage on his body having played in more than 700 career regular-season games and 116 postseason contests and counting, yet still had a career-high .927 save percentage in his 14th season.

And then there's 39-year-old Roberto Luongo, who already announced he'll be back for a 19th season after recording a .929 save percentage, his highest since 2003-04 — albeit in only 35 games because of an injury.

Age shouldn't be a concern for Crawford, who's played in only 409 regular-season games and 87 in the playoffs. There's still a lot of gas left in his tank

But can he get back to being one of the best goalies in the league? If — and it's a big if — his health doesn't get in the way of it, there's no reason not to believe he can't.

"He just seems to keep getting better every year to where you can see his value to our team right now," Bowman said. "So I would expect his performance to be certainly where he was last year, for sure. I don't think there's any reason to doubt that. He's got a lot of confidence. That last couple of seasons he's played a bigger role on our team and we're looking for that next year. We're hopeful that's the case."

Despite successful stretch, Blackhawks trying to put together full 60-minute effort

Despite successful stretch, Blackhawks trying to put together full 60-minute effort

The Blackhawks have won eight of their past 10 games, and have played themselves into a wildcard race after their playoff hopes appeared to be all but dead just a month ago. But they’re not satisfied with where their game is at.

The Blackhawks have put together this solid run without playing a full 60-minute game they’re comfortable with, and have gotten off track a little bit.

On Saturday night against Columbus, the Blackhawks had a slow start, a dominant second period and relapsed in the third period. On Thursday against Vancouver, they had another slow start, a good second period and survived the third. And on Tuesday against Boston, they weren’t very good all around.

While picking up a chunk of points is crucial at this time of year, the Blackhawks are more focused on the process and the way they’re playing. And right now they don’t like where it’s trending.

“We played the way we played the last few games,” Jonathan Toews said following Saturday’s 5-2 loss. “Obviously we didn’t have the 60, the full 60 that we wanted. There’s still some good spurts in there that allowed us to stay in the game. ... Just need to get back to having that 60-minute effort.

“When we do that, all four lines get engaged and we get contributions from all over. I think we need to be a little bit more consistent, play a complete game and things will go our way.”

The encouraging part of their successful stretch is that they’ve been finding ways to win despite not playing their best. That’s an internal belief.

Now the Blackhawks actually want to start playing their best, and not just getting away with it when they don’t. There have still been some positive developments, but putting it all together has been a challenge.

“A lot of the things are still there,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I’m not sure it’s so different. I think the results are different. We have a need to improve. ... I’m not going to get too high or too low. The result’s bad, so what? Let’s move on to the next one.

“Like I said to the players after the game, the negative is we lost two points and we missed an opportunity to close the gap in the race that we’re in. But the positive is also we were in a bad spot and turned the game. And we were right there. Let’s find a way to do it for more of the 60 minutes and we’re good enough.”

In Saturday’s case, the Blackhawks played a very good Blue Jackets team in the thick of a playoff race of their own in the Eastern Conference and that's a team that gives a lot of clubs problems with the way they possess the puck and generate scoring chances. Surviving those pushes and capitalizing when the Blackhawks have control is something they've harped ever since Colliton took over as head coach, and for the most part they've done that recently.

They just have to get back to doing it on a more consistent basis.

“Sometimes you’re going to play some teams that are coming at you with everything they got,” Toews said. “So you got to kind of expect that even if you’re playing well, there’s times you just have to manage the situation in your own end and weather the storm, as they say.

"The fact that we’re still in games, we’re giving ourselves a chance to win every single night even if we’re not playing our best hockey I think is showing how far we’ve come as a team. We know that there’s that next step that we need to take in these next 20 or so games. Points like tonight are so valuable, you can’t let them slip.”

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Four takeaways: Artemi Panarin guides Blue Jackets past Blackhawks in return to Chicago

Four takeaways: Artemi Panarin guides Blue Jackets past Blackhawks in return to Chicago

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in front of 22,196 fans — the largest crowd of the season — at the United Center on Saturday:

1. Blackhawks have no answer for Panarin-Dubois-Atkinson line

The Blue Jackets three leading scorers are Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Artemi Panarin. A reason for that is they all play on the same line. And the Blackhawks had no answer for them.

Atkinson scored a goal, Dubois had a goal and an assist, and Panarin was named the first star of the game after scoring twice and adding a primary assist. Heck, the line nearly connected for a fifth goal but Atkinson was a smidge offside and it was overturned.

"I think we gave them their chances, whether we turned it over in the D-zone for a couple of their goals or they got a bounce going on a rush a couple times too," said Connor Murphy, who was on the ice for three of the five goals. "But they're a dangerous line and you gotta be more disciplined if you want to be better against them."

2. Struggling starts continue

The Blackhawks have been struggling out of the gates as of late. They gave up three more goals, and allowed 16 scoring chances at 5-on-5 in the opening frame, according to naturalstattrick.com

Fortunately, they got one of their own when Patrick Kane found the back of the net to extend his point streak to 17 games. But the Blue Jackets — Panarin, who else? — responded 17 seconds later and then again with 46 seconds remaining in the period. The Blackhawks have now been outscored 8-3 in the first period in their past three games.

"We weren’t very good in the beginning of the game," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We were sloppy with the puck and too loose defensively, and they got some pretty good players who put the puck in the net. So we made it hard on ourselves. We looked like, for a bit, that we were going to get out of the period 1-1 and then obviously that was tough to go down two like that."

3. Sergei Bobrovsky staves off second-period push

After being outscored 3-1 in the first period, the Blackhawks completely controlled the tempo in the second period. They outshot the Blue Jackets 20-9, had 11 scoring chances at 5-on-5 to their six, and scored a goal with 33.6 seconds left to give them some momentum going into intermission.

But that's all they got, thanks to a two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie who stopped 39 of 41 shots for a save percentage of .951, with 33 of his 39 saves coming in the first two periods.

"He was good again tonight," Brent Seabrook said. "I think he's won the Vezina a couple times. Hell of a goalie."

4. Kane and Panarin share a moment

When the Blackhawks were in Columbus earlier this season, Kane and Panarin shared a funny moment at the end of warmups. Panarin waited for Kane to leave the ice before skating hard to the bench after Kane waved him on.

The bromance continued on Saturday night.

Kane and Panarin each took turns firing pucks at one another, with Panarin getting the last shot as Kane left ice. It was an enjoyable moment for Chicago fans between two former teammates who remain in touch.

"We have a pretty good relationship," Panarin said through a translator. "I kind of miss him a lot, so we decided to play around a little bit."

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