Blackhawks finally get Crawford back

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The Chicago Blackhawks are off to a strong 3-0-2 start this season, but that doesn’t mean that Corey Crawford‘s absence hasn’t been glaring.

In those five games, the Blackhawks have scored 22 goals and allowed 21. They can attribute taking at least one standings point in all five games to some clutch performances from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Alex DeBrincat.

Cam Ward? He’s been … well, like most critics expected. In starting all of Chicago’s games, Ward’s numbers are hideous: a 4.06(!) GAA and .879 save percentage is lousy stuff, even if the Blackhawks’ defense leaves a lot to be desired.

So … yeah, getting Crawford back is a huge deal.

The would-be workhorse goalie hasn’t played since Dec. 23, so you can’t really blame the Blackhawks for this adorably excited tweet:

Of course, as Bob McKenzie detailed last night (see the video above this post’s headline), the return of Crawford doesn’t exactly guarantee that he’ll return to the putting-the-team-on-his-back form that he developed in recent seasons for Chicago.

There were very reasonable concerns about Crawford even playing this season, as he’s battling brutal concussion symptoms.

Even with Crawford coming back, there’s no guarantee that he won’t suffer another setback, possibly as soon as Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. As former Blackhawk Dave Bolland told the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus (sub required), the fear can linger, and previous concussions increase the chances of history repeating itself.

“It’s easy to come back from a groin or a broken arm or something like that,” Bolland said. “Coming back from a concussion is a little tougher. You don’t know if you’re really ready. If you take another hit, you’re probably prone to taking another one. It’s hard not to think about that. Knowing when you’re ready to come back from a concussion, it takes a bit of time. You have to know that your brain is healthy and that it’s good. When I came back, it was always pretty tough convincing myself I was ready. I never wanted to come back and not be ready and end up hurting myself.”

On one hand, Crawford isn’t going to be engaged in the frequent puck battles that a skater would deal with. On the other, goalies must be mentally alert the entire time they’re on the ice, tracking the puck even when it’s not in the attacking zone. (Otherwise, you risk allowing a humiliating, long-distance goal, or simply not being ready if an opponent springs a quick breakaway.)

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the NHL is increasingly concerned with goalie concussions, noting that 13 goalies were diagnosed with 15 concussions in 2017-18 alone. It’s such a serious consideration that the league is looking into ways to improve protection as soon as possible.

Servalli’s story focuses on shots off of goalie masks, yet this Marc-Andre Fleury quote from the article really cements the notion that Crawford might not be up to full speed, possibly for quite some time.

“I do think about it,” Fleury said of the dangers of being a goalie, and concussion risks in general. “This last one lasted a little longer than the previous ones, so I’m still thinking about it. Every day you wake up, you don’t feel great, you’re dizzy. It’s disturbing.”

Overall, there are a lot of obstacles in Crawford’s way.

Goalies can see their play slip for a ton of reasons. Sometimes they merely suffer an off year. Perhaps a change in system or new faces on defense can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Aging can mean a slight slip in reflexes, which can sometimes mean the difference between making that quick-twitch save or glove stop or allowing a goal (Crawford’s 33, so he’s vulnerable to Father Time’s attacks).

But beyond those universal factors, there’s also the threat of concussion symptoms resurfacing, or another one being suffered.

No doubt, Crawford’s return is huge for a Blackhawks team hoping to claw its way back into the playoffs. And, in all honesty, Crawford at 80 percent might be better than Cam Ward in the twilight of his up-and-down career.

The Blackhawks would be foolish to assume that this will be a seamless transition for Crawford, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks want, and need, more from Brandon Saad

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The Chicago Blackhawks were a popular preseason pick to finish in last place in the Central Division. They were coming off a down year, had an uncertain goaltending situation with Corey Crawford still sidelined, and the roster has its share of holes on paper. Through the first four games of the season, however, the Blackhawks are off to a better than expected started, gaining at least a point in each game with a 2-0-2 record.

The biggest reason for the fast start has been Jonathan Toews‘ discovery of the fountain of youth as he looks to bounce back from a down year, as well as the continued development of Alex DeBrincat. That duo, along with Patrick Kane, has carried the Blackhawks’ offense through the first four games and allowed them to overcome some sub-par defense and more bad goaltending.

[Related: Blackhawks should get used to winning ugly]

Eventually they are going to need more from someone that isn’t one of Toews, DeBrincat or Kane. One player at the top of that list is veteran forward Brandon Saad, who has not only not given them much yet this season, but seems to have been demoted to the fourth-line based on Friday’s practice lines.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville simply said that the team needs to see more from him.

Here is what Quenneville had to say on Friday, via NBC Chicago’s Charlie Roumeliotis.

“Saad needs a little bit more consistency with the puck. Losing pucks, we want to make sure, if you are going to lose it, there’s still another level of keeping the puck and not ending it there in that situation. That’s one area he can be better.

“But I still think there’s production there. He’s had some looks. We’re looking for more of the finished product, as we saw those situations come up last year, as well. Krugs’ line always seems to generate something. That line can have more of a purpose defensively and can be an effective line because they usually get some top lines and sometimes they can be exposed in some situations.”

Saad’s career has been a strange one because there is obviously enormous potential with him, but it hasn’t always panned out as expected.

He ended up falling in his draft class, going from at one point a projected top-five pick, all the way down to the back end of the second round following a down year in his draft year. When he first arrived in Chicago he became a key part of a Stanley Cup winning team and looked to be an emerging star in the league. But a salary cap crunch saw him sent him to Columbus after that championship season where he signed a long-term contract. It was at that point that his production leveled off and he eventually found himself back in Chicago prior to the 2017-18 season in exchange for Artemi Panarin.

At the time, the Blackhawks were coming off of a second straight disappointing first-round exit and had some long-term concerns about their ability to re-sign Panarin and fit him under the salary cap.

That resulted in the reunion between the two sides.

Just a little more than one year into it and it is not going well.

While Panarin continued to be an impact player in Columbus, Saad had the worst season of his career in his return to the Blackhawks only 18 goals and 35 total points in 82 games, while somehow managing just a single point on the power play despite logging more than 174 minutes on the man-advantage.

His lack of production and his play did not go unnoticed.

Before the season started The Athletic‘s Scott Powers (sub. required) quoted two anonymous NHL scouts giving scathing reviews of Saad’s play, including one that said, “I think Saad is a guy who plays for a contract. I’m not convinced that he’s a guy who plays for you every night.”

Harsh.

And now, just four games into the season with only a single point and seven shots on goal on the stat sheet, he finds himself skating on the fourth line.

Saad is better than this, and while his 2017-18 numbers were a spectacular disappointment (especially in comparison to what the guy he was traded for did) but there were still signs he could have been better and should be able to bounce back. He was an elite possession player, and you have to think that power play production almost has to get better even if he just stood there and did nothing (one power play point in 174 minutes!).

If the Blackhawks are going to bounce back this season and be better than expected there are three players that have to drive that bus: A healthy Corey Crawford, Jonathan Toews, and Saad. They are getting it so far from Toews, and they are hopeful Crawford can return this week.

Now they just need to get something — anything, really — from Saad.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Ryan Johansen on playing in Smashville, Central Divison battles (PHT Q&A)

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The Nashville Predators took many years to be built into the contenders that they are now. General manager David Poile had made shrewd move after shrewd move in order to put his team in the best possible spot to win a Stanley Cup.

One of those moves was trading Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen in Jan. 2016. It was a move trading from excess to fill a need, which was an impact centerman. Johansen has filled that role scoring 37 goals and recording 150 points in 205 games with the Predators.

During the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last month, Johansen sat down with NBC to talk about coming up short last season, playing in Nashville and the tough Central Division.

Enjoy.

PHT: When you look at last season, especially the playoffs, do you see “Wow, we had a good year” or that was a blown opportunity?

JOHANSEN: “I’d lean towards more of a good year. [We] won the Presidents’ Trophy and it is not an easy thing to do. Our league is so competitive, it’s anyone’s game in the playoffs, but it was definitely a disappointing finish. We felt like we were a better team than that and falling short was just a little disappointing.”

Q. You have a great home environment. Describe Smashville for somebody who doesn’t know.

JOHANSEN: “That’s all you need to say, is Smashville. It is absolutely incredible. It is tough to describe from the time I was traded until now. It is absolutely amazing to see the support for our team, and not only hockey fans but kids learning about the game and learning about the Preds. Young kids, their eyes just light right up when we run into people around town and it truly has turned into a remarkable place to play hockey and I am definitely very fortunate to be there.”

Q. Does it sound differently in that rink than any place else?

JOHANSEN: “When it’s time, and when we’re going and the crowd’s into it, I don’t know how you can compare it or who you can compare it to. I mean, Winnipeg’s pretty fun when they were going, but two years ago when we were in the Finals and we were the underdogs and surprising people and making Nashville fans proud, you couldn’t help yourself but be distracted from it. It was so cool.”

Q. In past years, the success you guys have had, does that start by sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017?

JOHANSEN: Yeah, I think that was a big confidence booster. That was the hump here in the West that we needed to get over. And more than we probably knew it, it gave us a boost where we felt unbeatable after that and we had a swagger to our game, our team game, where no matter what was happening on the ice we were going to keep coming and we were going to get the job done.”

Q. How much does it take out of a player to play in the Central Division?

JOHANSEN: “Whenever we’re matched up against each other it’s a different game than playing other teams. I would say more of the West though, too. There’s just a lot of strong, big hockey teams and, not taking away from anybody in the East but, just with the rivalries between the teams that are close to us, it’s fun hockey. Those are games you want to play in, you love to play in. There’s no days off or else you’re losing, so, especially when we’re in our division, and the games are so important.”

Q. Even though they finished last, last season, are the Blackhawks and guys like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane still a measuring stick for you?

JOHANSEN: “Definitely as a centerman, being matched up against Toews, who won the Stanley Cup three times, it’s a very fun challenge in competitiveness that personally I thrive on. I thrive on those opportunities to match up with those guys and see where my game’s at and gain confidence from, or go back to the drawing board with my own game and find ways to improve or outplay not only Toews but all the top centermen or forwards in the league.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Young Hurricanes shine; Kovalchuk reaches milestone

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Three Stars

1. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs. It has only been three games but so far John Tavares has been everything the Maple Leafs could have hoped for. He and Auston Matthews are carrying the offense right now, while Tavares recorded his first hat trick as a member of the Maple Leafs on Sunday night in a game that featured everything but defense.

2. Warren Foegele, Carolina Hurricanes. It has been a great start to the 2018-19 season for the Hurricanes with a 2-0-1 start that was highlighted by Sunday’s 8-5 win over the New York Rangers. It turned out to be a huge game for some of the Hurricanes’ young players, with 2018 No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov scoring his first NHL goal (the game-winner) and picking up another assist in the win. He was not the only young Hurricanes to make an impact on Sunday as Warren Foegele picked up a pair of goals and an assist. In just five games over the past two seasons the 22-year-old Foegele (a third-round pick by the Hurricanes in 2014) already has four goals and two assists. The Hurricanes were great on Sunday, right through the post-game celebration.

3. Jack Campbell, Los Angeles Kings. With Jonathan Quick sidelined for the time being the Los Angeles Kings have to turn to Jack Campbell in the short-term. He enters the season with just seven games of NHL experience so he remains a bit of a mystery even though he is a first-round draft pick from 2010. On Sunday night he played one of the best games of his brief career, turning aside 36 of the 38 shots he faced from the Detroit Red Wings. The only two goals the Red Wings were able to get behind him on Sunday night were power play tallies.

Highlight of the Night

The Blackhawks dropped their first game of the season on Sunday night, largely due to their defense and goaltending, but were still able to gain at least a point in the standings thanks to their performance of their offense. The best play of the night was this tic-tac-toe goal in the first period that gave them 2-0 lead.

Factoids

Ilya Kovalchuk recorded his first point for the Los Angeles Kings in his return to the NHL, and it was a big one for him as it was the 400th helper in his NHL career. He is just the 88th player in league history to record at least 400 goals and 400 assists in his career. Who knows what his career numbers would look like had he not spent the past five years playing in the KHL. He added another assist later in the game giving him two points on the night. Those two points have also made him officially a point-per-game player again, giving him 818 total points in 818 games.

The Blackhawks received goals from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on Sunday night, a development that usually results in them winning the game. That did not happen against the Toronto Maple Leafs, making it the first time in 44 games that the Blackhawks did not win when Toews and Kane both score in the same game.

 

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 8, New York Rangers 5

Toronto Maple Leafs 7, Chicago Blackhawks 6 (OT)

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

 

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs top Blackhawks in wild game where nobody could defend

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You have to love the first couple of weeks of the NHL season when everybody forgets how to play defense and the goalies aren’t yet up to their peak performance. So far this season we have been treated to some wild games, and the wildest of the bunch may have taken place in Chicago on Sunday night were the Maple Leafs were 7-6 overtime winners against the Blackhawks.

This game had everything.

A few of the highlights…

— After Chicago raced out to an early 2-0 lead (with another strong early season showing form Jonathan Toews leading the way), John Tavares scored three goals to record his first hat trick as a member of the Maple Leafs, with his third goal giving his team a 5-4 lead midway through the third period.

At the time it looked like that goal might be enough to give his team the win. While it certainly contributed it was not the game-winner because after he scored that is when all heck broke loose.

— Over the final 85 seconds of regulation the two teams combined to score three goals, with Patrick Kane starting the madness with a game-tying goal (with the Blackhawks’ net empty for the extra attacker) with just 1:24 to play.

That goal was quickly answered (only 22 seconds later to be exact) by Auston Matthews, scoring his fifth goal of the season and second of the game, to help Toronto regain the lead. With their performances on Sunday it means Tavares and Matthews have now combined to score nine of the Maple Leafs’ first 13 goals this season. This particular goal from Matthews resulted in a pretty great celebration as he taunted the United Center crowd.

But this game was far from over!

Just 33 seconds after that Kane responded with yet another game-tying goal in the final two minutes of regulation, and he made sure to return the favor to Matthews by mimicking his celebration.

— Once the two teams made it to overtime they did not need much time to decide a winner with Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Reilly scoring the game-winner just 19 seconds in … and it was a terrible goal for Cam Ward to give up.

— The one thing this game did not have, obviously, was defense and goaltending and there was perhaps no better way to illustrate that than the fact that Toronto’s Garret Sparks not only got the win, but also had the best save percentage out of the two starting goalies … at .806. That is brutal. Chicago’s Cam Ward managed only a .794 mark and continued what has been a miserable start to the season as he attempts to fill in for Corey Crawford. The experiment is not going well.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.