Blackhawks

How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

When the Blackhawks signed Vezina trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year deal last offseason, many thought that would be it for Corey Crawford. They thought Lehner would run away as the No. 1 goalie in Chicago and Crawford would disappear.

Those who still doubt Crawford, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Hawks, haven't watched his career very closely. 

Just as he battled to lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2015 after suffering an off-ice lower-body injury and just as he battled back to be a reliable last line of defense after multiple concussions the last couple seasons, he battled for the Hawks' net this season. 

Related: How will long layoff affect goalies in NHL's 24-team postseason?

UPDATE: Crawford missed the Blackhawks' Day 1 of Phase 3 training camp Monday. Hawks head coach Jeremy Colliton deemed Crawford "unfit to play" for Day 1, terminology used for players not able to participate in Return To Play acitivities under NHL protocol.

NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes thinks it's that experience of battling and repeatedly finding his game after long layoffs from injuries that could make him a dangerous opponent for the Edmonton Oilers in the best-of-five qualifying round in the NHL's 24-team postseason kicking off Aug. 1 at Edmonton, assuming Crawford is the Hawks' starting goalie. The Blackhawks begin their training camp for the postseason on Monday.

"For somebody that hasn't gone through (injuries) before, there's so many unknowns and then maybe there's question marks and the mental elevator starts creeping up at times in ways that aren't helpful," Weekes, a former NHL goalie, told NBC Sports Chicago over the phone. "But the fact that he's had that experience in battling back from injury and coming back a long way and having extended layoffs, this isn't foreign to him. 

"So in that respect, it should be beneficial in a weird way and also give him the chance to heal up and rest up even more by way of this extended pause. I think that those things play in his favor. Those things should be playing in his favor for sure."

Related: How Blackhawks can beat Oilers with 'wealth of success' in qualifying round

This year, Crawford competed hard for the No. 1 goalie role. Leading up to the NHL pause on March 12, he had made 39 starts (16-20-3) and had a goals-against average of 2.77 with a .917 save percentage before the Hawks traded Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of the trade deadline. With the Blackhawks, Lehner made 31 starts (16-10-5) and had a goals-against average of 3.01 and a .918 save percentage. Both tenders' numbers were hurt by an often struggling Hawks defense this year.

"I've always been a huge advocate of Crow. Crow's had an excellent run in Chicago," Weekes said. "I think the biggest challenge for him, which we all know, which isn't a state secret, (there's) just been some health challenges and he always battles back. Crow's a guy that'll battle and he's been able to come a long way back and rediscover his game, which is hard to do after layoffs, let alone multiple ones. 

"And I think this year, once he got back, talking to their goalie coach in Jimmy Waite and you got to credit Jimmy because he's put in so much work to be able to regroup Crow, numerous times. So this season specifically, when he first started, it was a little bit of a slow start as expected because he had such an extended layoff. 

Related: What's Blackhawks' key to victory over Oilers in NHL play-in series?

"But, I really think with them having Robin Lehner, it really helped because they didn't have to throw Crow right into the fire. And then Crow hit his stride and he's playing really well. ... He's played really well, coming down the stretch he looked excellent as well and that's great news for the Hawks because they're going to need him, especially in a shorter series in this play-in round against Edmonton and the fact that Crow has the experience that he does, he's played in huge games. 

"He's played in, obviously, Stanley Cup (finals). He's a winner, he's not afraid of the big stage. He's not afraid to play in a place like Chicago, he thrives on that and not to mention, internationally for Team Canada. I think where they're concerned, as far as his ability and his talent, he just looks like himself right now, which is great news for the Hawks and I know that his teammates have a lot of confidence in him so as long as he's able to... I know he's been on the ice, as long as he's healthy and feeling good they've got a good shot because he's been there before and he's done it before. 

"It's a unique opportunity for him and for his team, but he can lean on that experience of having played in big spots like the Stanley Cup Final and playoffs for years. That could be an advantage for the Hawks actually in that respect."

It's not clear who will start in net yet for the Oilers. Mikko Koskinen was 18-13-3 this year with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage and Mike Smith was 19-12-6 with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. 

Although some of their numbers may measure up to Crawford's, neither goalie's journey can compare to his.

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Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach emerging as star and living up to 'playoff performer' hype

Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach emerging as star and living up to 'playoff performer' hype

Ask anyone in Chicago who the standout of training camp 2.0 was and you'll hear one name: Kirby Dach.

“He has all the potential in the world,” Patrick Kane said. “He can be a top player in the league.”

“He’s got the potential to be a great player in this league and a great player for the Blackhawks for a long time," echoed Brent Seabrook.

Upon hearing this enormous praise from a pair of three-time Stanley Cup champions and joining the hype train myself, I couldn’t help but think: Are we putting unfair expectations on a kid who’s still only 19?

The answer: Nope. Because he can handle it.

Dach looks like a completely different player after finally having an “offseason” to recharge, both mentally and physically. And it’s showing in the postseason.

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Through three games in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, Dach has four points — all assists — and a team-best plus-4 rating; in total, he’s been on the ice for eight of the Blackhawks’ 13 goals so far. He became the first Blackhawks rookie to register at least one point in his first three postseason games since Eddie Olczyk in 1985. 

All those numbers are great, but here’s the eye-opener: Dach is averaging 20:21 of ice time in the postseason, which trails only Patrick Kane (22:21) among team forwards. He led all Blackhawks forwards with 23:21 of ice time in Wednesday’s Game 3 comeback win over the Edmonton Oilers, which was, by far, a career high for Dach, who averaged 14:16 of ice time during the regular season.

The Blackhawks are giving him an enormous amount of responsibility, whether it's top-six minutes at even strength, power-play time on the first unit and penalty kill reps. And Dach is handling it about as well as you could ask for.

"He loves responsibility and he thrives on it," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We knew, based on how he looked in training camp, that he was ready to take a bigger role here. He's been great. He's been as advertised."

Dach isn't just making an impact on the scoresheet, either. He's doing the little things right, too.

Olli Maatta scored the first goal in Game 3 after his shot from the point got past Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen, but that puck doesn't go in without the 6-foot-4, 197-pound Dach wreaking havoc in front of the net. Those plays don't go unnoticed inside the locker room.

"It shows that the coach trusts in your abilities to get a job done," Dach said of the added responsibility. "And as a player, it's a welcoming challenge. You want to be put in those situations and succeed in them."

One of the main reasons why the Blackhawks selected Dach third overall in 2019 was because of the way he elevated his game in the Western Hockey League playoffs. He was the engine for the Saskatoon Blades and the focal point for opponents yet thrived off the attention.

“He does all the things that can wow you, but then he does the other stuff, too," GM Stan Bowman said the day the Blackhawks drafted Dach. "He was great at stripping pucks, he was great at backchecking, he was great at the physical play when the series got pretty intense in the playoffs and it was clear they were targeting him. He not only took it, he gave it back. It was impressive to see him raise his game at a time of year when it matters most, which is playoff hockey.

"You watch the NHL playoffs and you see how intense it can be and then you look at the way he plays, and you can see that that game translates."

It sure does.

Whether he can be a big-time point producer in the NHL remains to be seen, but it's clear Dach is the kind of player whose game is better suited for the playoffs than the regular season. And we're seeing why.

How Blackhawks' unlikely heroes on defense are providing boost in Oilers series

How Blackhawks' unlikely heroes on defense are providing boost in Oilers series

Jonathan Toews was dominant in Game 1's 6-4 win and he was back at it in Game 3. But, with the special teams woes the Oilers have been causing the Hawks in touting a power play that was No. 1 in the NHL at the time of the pause and a penalty kill that was No. 2, not to mention the top two points leaders in the league during the regular season (Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid), Chicago needed some unlikely heroes to emerge in the series.

Enter Blackhawks defensemen Connor Murphy, Olli Maatta and Slater Koekkoek.

With Game 3 tied 3-3 and just 1:16 remaining early Thursday morning, Murphy fired a wrist shot to put the Hawks ahead. It even appeared as if he scored the goal himself at first, but Toews was credited with his second goal of the game on the play and Murphy with the primary assist. The D-man finished Game 3 with a +/- rating of +1 in 21:55 of ice time.

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"Just a lucky bounce," a modest Murphy said of his play that helped the Blackhawks take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, having the Oilers facing elimination in Friday's Game 4. "Didn’t throw (a) hard one at the net. I saw Tazer had good position. He was all alone in front, should be able to get a tip on it. ... Just those last minutes of games, every faceoff’s so huge, obviously that one being a big one to get a shot off."

Koekkoek got the primary assist on Matthew Highmore's first career postseason goal which tied the game 3-3 at 14:13 of the third.

Maatta scored the first goal of the game 9:14 into the opening frame off a pass from Patrick Kane and picked up the secondary assist on Highmore's goal. 

"He's got experience from playing in the playoffs, it's nice to have that, and he's done a great job defensively, killing penalties and he's calm back there," Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said of Maatta, who won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins before coming to the Hawks, after the game. "He's been able to chip in offensively, too, that's always a bonus. Our D as a whole are doing a great job of getting pucks through and getting it to the net, and we're going to need to continue to do that."

Related: Blackhawks overcome special teams woes, complete comeback in Game 3

Maatta has a two-game goal streak in the series and he and his D-partner, Koekkoek, were the only blueliners in Game 2's 6-3 loss with a positive +/- rating (+2). Maatta had one goal in Game 2 and Koekkoek a goal and an assist.

"I think we do a great job whenever we get in the zone, our forwards do a great job holding onto the puck. That makes them collapse a little bit. They do a good job of giving us the puck with a little more time. It hasn't been only me and Kooks," Maatta said of the Hawks blueline's contributions to the series. "It's been Haaner (Calvin de Haan) and Murph and Duncs (Duncan Keith) and Boqi (Adam Boqvist). They're getting pucks through and it feels like every time we get it to the net our forwards are in good position, battling for them, getting rebounds, getting tips. It makes it tough for them."

According to Murphy, with the way the Blackhawks' forwards and D have been effectively collaborating in the offensive zone, it's best for Chicago's defensemen to just keep firing pucks on net when they can.

"It’s always part of your game plan," Murphy said. "Especially our forwards draw good attention when they’re entering the zone, knowing that we’ve got a lot of firepower in them, a lot of skill and strength. They do a good job of drawing wingers down to them. It leaves a couple of open shots. Kooks and Olli have been hot lately and have really smart shots they get through, go in. That’s always a good plan."