Blackhawks

Hoge: Crawford Answers Blackhawks’ Biggest Question

Corey Crawford makes a save against the Wild. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Corey Crawford makes a save against the Wild. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

UNITED CENTER (CBS) Midway through the first period of the Blackhawks’ series clinching win Thursday night, a chant not often heard at the United Center broke out.

“Corey! Corey! Corey!,” yelled the soldout crowd.

It was too loud for goaltender Corey Crawford to ignore.

“22,000 people chanting that? Maybe caught a couple seconds of that,” Crawford admitted after the 5-1 win over the Wild. “It felt good to have our crowd behind me obviously.”

It had to have felt good. Just a year ago, while Crawford was struggling through a first round exit to the Phoenix Coyotes, those same fans were booing him.

“That’s professional sports,” he said. “Fans want to see you at your best and they definitely hold us accountable at times here. We love our fans. They’re great to us and they expect the best from us. I think that’s just a good thing.”

If Crawford wasn’t at his best in the five games against the Wild, he sure was close to it. He only allowed seven goals in the series and thus far, has been the best goaltender in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

And now he has his first series win to show for it.

“I feel good. I’m seeing the puck well,” Crawford said. “It was good series for me, but we have a lot of work to do.”

There’s a couple of ways to look at the Blackhawks’ 4-1 series win over the Wild in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

On one hand, the Blackhawks played without a key piece of their lineup (Dave Bolland), didn’t get much production from their top line, had an awful power play, and still managed to take the series in just five games.

On the other hand, the Wild played without their top goaltender (Niklas Backstrom) and the Blackhawks will see much more physical competition going forward.

Count me among the optimists.

The Blackhawks really only played one complete game in the entire series, yet for the most part, they were tested and dealt with the adversity well.

The same can be said for Crawford, who many — including yours truly — doubted before the series began.

For a team — and a goaltender — that did not handle adversity well last year during a first round exit to the Coyotes, coming out of the Western Conference Quarterfinals with four wins in five games says a lot.

Especially since the Blackhawks did not play their best hockey for the majority of the series. Even after their dominating Game 5 win, head coach Joel Quenneville didn’t sound pleased.

“I don’t think we should be happy with where we are at with our play,” he said. “Let’s get angry as we go along here.”

Quenneville said the Hawks’ pace is still not matching some of the other series that are being played around the league and he added that he’s “not doing cartwheels over the last two games.”

The Blackhawks outscored the Wild 8-1 in those two games, by the way.

There is truth to Quenneville’s complaints though. The Blackhawks’ top line struggled for the most part until Game 5 (Jonathan Toews tallied his first two points of the playoffs Thursday) and the power play was almost non-existent.

Yet the Hawks still took the series 4-1.

Some might say the series would have been much tighter had Crawford not carried the Blackhawks so much. My response to that is: duh.

In the playoffs, you need your goaltender to be hot and Crawford is extremely hot.

No one really knew what the Blackhawks would get from Crawford once the playoffs started. Now it’s safe to say that his play so far is the most important — and most encouraging — development for the Hawks in the playoffs so far.

They had no chance to win the Cup if Crawford played like he did last year against the Coyotes. Now, they have much more than a chance.

Will it get tougher?

Absolutely. The Wild failed miserably in their attempt to rough up the Hawks. It’s not what they do best and that showed in this series.

Either the San Jose Sharks or Detroit Red Wings will be a much more physical opponent, but the Blackhawks should have a response of their own.

It appears Dave Bolland will be back for the second round and that could make the Blackhawks tougher to beat than they have been all season. Head coach Joel Quenneville hinted Thursday that he’ll stick with Michal Handzus as the second-line center, potentially moving Bolland back to his more familiar role on the third line. That could give the Hawks a very physical third line with Andrew Shaw moving to the wing and Viktor Stalberg to the fourth line.

Remember, the Blackhawks didn’t have Handzus when they tallied a point in a record 24 straight games to start the season, and while he wasn’t added with the intention of him becoming the second-line center, that’s exactly what he is now.

The only remaining issue might be the power play (2-for-13 in the first round), but on the flip side, the Hawks also killed all 17 penalties against the Wild.

Give Crawford a big portion of the credit for that too.

With the goaltender playing at the level he is, the Blackhawks are leaving their first round series with far fewer questions than they had when the playoffs started.

And the rest of the team can still play better.

That’s bad news for any team that has to come through Chicago on its way to the Cup.

For more coverage throughout the playoffs, follow Adam on Twitter (@AdamHoge).