By Brian Hamilton
CHICAGO – A goaltender's mind can be a delicate and peculiar thing, so Joel Quenneville typically stays out of it. The Blackhawks' coach may have two Stanley Cups to his credit, but others on his staff are better equipped and better trained to maneuver through that mental labyrinth. On Sunday, though, it was time for him to meet with Corey Crawford. Twice the defending Stanley Cup champions had held last-minute, one-goal leads in St. Louis during their opening round playoff series. Each time, Chicago had lost the lead and subsequently the game.
After the second frustrating defeat, Crawford said he needed to play better.
And after Crawford made that admission, Quenneville flatly agreed. His words were an unmistakable challenge that brought him face-to-face with his netminder the next day. But there was no ultimatum, no red-faced diatribe. There was only reassurance. Quenneville told Crawford that he recognized the goalie was taking responsibility and commended him for it. Down two games to none on Easter, it was time to focus on resurrection.
"The task at hand was pretty obvious," Crawford said. "And the performance we needed was obvious, too."
The Blackhawks' 2-0 win at the United Center on Monday was exactly what they needed indeed. A team and its goaltender settled down, rediscovered the discipline, poise and overall identity that they had surprisingly abandoned for two games, and cut the Blues' series lead to 2-1. Chicago has hoisted two Cups since 2010 by playing a game predicated on speed, precision and puck possession, but the Hawks torched that approach in their first two games against St. Louis, instead trying to level everybody who got in their way. Brent Seabrook's Game 2 blast on David Backes earned the Chicago defenseman a three-game suspension and gave St. Louis a power play that enabled the Blues to tie the game with 6.4 seconds left in regulation. Recklessness was a sure sign that the Blackhawks' championship defense was screeching off the track.
On Monday night, better play in front of the net and between the posts corrected the course. Minor lineup tweaks and a fortunate bounce through the wickets of St. Louis goalie Ryan Miller 4:10 into the first period gave Chicago an early lead and some relief. But with every subsequent shift that failed to build on that lead, it became increasingly incumbent on Crawford to finish strong for the first time in this series. None of the 11 third-period shots that the Blues fired on his net got past him, and his 34-save effort produced his third career postseason shutout. Crawford had said he needed to be better, and he was.
"I thought it was a great response, and a tremendous effort by him," Quenneville said after the game. "He was square, he was solid, he was in control. His rebound effectiveness today was as good as we've seen. It was a real solid game for him."
Game 3 recap | Box score
Much like the rest of the Blackhawks, Crawford was out of sorts in games 1 and 2. He was overplaying and he knew it, so he built himself back up through deconstruction. He stayed lower in his stance, allowing for more compact, brisk movements. He snuggled up to the goal posts, and if he had to venture out, he did so with confidence and purpose. Patient, composed movements were the choreography that would lead Chicago back into the series.
"Whenever I felt I needed to move out, I'd move out instead of moving backwards," Crawford said. "I was a little bit lower in situations, maybe a little bit quicker on things. I don't think I was getting out of position as much on screens and deflections as maybe the first two games."
Crawford's performance was emblematic of a team playing like itself again. The Blackhawks were a noticeably looser bunch during their pre-Game 3 morning skate on Monday. When winger Kris Versteeg badly whiffed on a shot attempt during a line rush, he tucked the still-skidding puck into the net and raised his arms in mock celebration as teammates Brandon Saad and Jeremy Morin cheered. When Bryan Bickell later roofed a shot that blew the top off Crawford's water bottle and sent liquid spraying everywhere, the burly winger skated to the corner and smiled at the goalie, making a washing-the-face motion with his glove.
During pregame warmups, dance music replaced the standard rock n' roll, and captain Jonathan Toews and fellow center Andrew Shaw actually chest-bumped. For a relatively staid group beset by the suspension of one of their top defenseman and a 2-0 series hole, this was both a see-no-evil approach and a pressure release. Not shockingly, Toews had bristled early Monday when someone even hinted at some seam-ripping in Chicago's dressing room. "I don't know who's talking about losing composure," Toews huffed.
OK, so it was speak-no-evil, too.
"We had that calm, cool confidence," Crawford said after Game 3. "In this group, our veterans led the way throughout the whole day and the last couple days, just keeping calm and collected. And everyone else followed."
For the first time this series, the details mattered to the Blackhawks. Toews opened the scoring with a first-period goal that was the only score of the game until Marcus Kruger scored on an empty-netter late. Toews was also dominant in the face-off circle, winning 19 of his 24 draws. Chicago killed another three St. Louis power plays and blocked 24 shots. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson barely could remain upright after taking one blast to the leg during a kill but nonetheless stayed on the ice until the puck was cleared out of the zone.
The Blackhawks' return to making responsible plays paid off. "I wouldn't say we were thinking about Game 1 and Game 2, but there was that thought there that you have to be extra careful," Toews said. "We're just throwing pucks out of our zone and making sure we're not turning pucks over in dangerous areas. A lot of times, we did have time to skate it and control it down in their zone. If we can do that and stay with our game a little more, we'll be better off."
Even if the Blues didn't have Backes, their do-everything captain who missed Game 3 thanks to the Seabrook hit, they still maintained some semblance of control after the early part of their day was spent decrying the alleged post-collision taunting of Backes in Game 2, in which a Blackhawks player apparently said “Wakey, wakey Backey” to the clearly dazed center.
“That's the first time in my career I've seen a guy go down in a severe manner like that and a guy is chirping them,” St. Louis winger Ryan Reaves said. “For a guy to go up and start talking to him in that kind of manner I think is gutless.” (When asked about it early Monday, the accused perpetrator, Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, issued a non-denial denial. “I don't remember everything that gets said,” he deadpanned.) But no vengeance was pursued. The Blues remained on relatively good behavior, aiming to retaliate by eliminating the Blackhawks and get them “shining up the golf clubs,” as Reaves put it.
HAMILTON: Taunt of dazed Backes becomes issue
St. Louis' goal of sending Chicago to an early tee time was complicated by Miller surrendering the soft goal to Toews in the first period and a punchless power play. Still, the direction of the series is a matter of interpretation. The Blues have been grinding it out through injuries and overtimes and still retain home-ice advantage. And the Blackhawks may not have played their best game yet. Game 4 on Wednesday will be revealimg. "They're not a defending champion because they have skill,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “It's because they've got resolve. You're trying to beat their resolve. You're not trying to beat their skill. Everybody has skill. And it is one hell of a challenge.”
It is, especially when Crawford – who probably deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy after last year's Stanley Cup run instead of Patrick Kane – is on his game and in control. It wasn't a perfect night for Chicago, though. One miscommunication with Keith nearly handed the tying goal to the Blues -- St. Louis forward Jaden Schwartz missed the net from about two feet away after a Chicago turnover deep in its own zone. Nevertheless, the Blackhawks and their goalie emerged with a crucial win.
Twice early on, Crawford banged his skate blade on the post and shuffled over to the bench during a timeout for repairs by the equipment staff. The skates needed a wipe-down before play resumed.
"Our guys are really good with that," Crawford said. "They just clean it up. It's not an issue."
Neither is the Blues' formerly formidable series advantage. The Blackhawks cleaned up their game with their first consistent, disciplined night of these playoffs. Funny how their problems started to melt away.