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Crawford playing part in defensive woes

CHICAGO -- Make no mistake, most of the Chicago Blackhawks’ problems giving up too many goals in the first two months of the season has everything to do with their defense.

But an examination of their issues would be remiss without some attention on their goaltending -- specifically the play of Corey Crawford.

Crawford has been hung out to dry in some embarrassing losses, but he’s also contributed to the problems by either being unable to bail out his defense with a big save or stop a semi-weak scoring chance from becoming a goal.

This isn’t to say he’s been downright bad, but when his goals-against average (2.86) ranks 26th in the league and his save percentage (.898) is even worse at 30th, it bears some examination.

And if a goaltender gets praise as the “best penalty killer on the ice,” as they often do, what does it mean when the team is ranked last in the league in that category?

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, and in Crawford’s case they probably say more about the defense around the net than anything. Easy, open-side goals are nearly unstoppable. As are tip-ins and re-directions from the point. The Hawks have had problems most of the season with these issues, but lately Crawford has come up short in helping his team stay in games.

November was not a kind month for the Hawks second-year netminder. His save percentage was just .886 in 12 games played.

Forget numbers, what does the eye test say about his play? In the early portion of the month the defense was responsible for a lot that went wrong. The five power-play goals the Hawks gave up to Vancouver on Nov. 6 was everyone’s fault. And coach Joel Quenneville said as much around that time, as well as the next loss in St. Louis, 3-0.

“The goals around the net are things we talk about that we can’t give up, those sort of goals,” he said in early November. “That predictability has to be iron-tight. Let’s make sure we don’t give up those type of goals.”

By mid-month the Hawks were giving up less of those easy scores yet lost games badly against Calgary (5-2), Edmonton (9-2) and most recently Phoenix (4-1). Even in a 6-5 win over Anaheim they needed a tremendous third period to pull it out. This stretch is where Crawford struggled the most.

Examples: Against the Flames he didn’t further cut down the angle on shooters Lee Stempniak and Rene Bourque when they came at him from the wing. He was also late in moving on a Curtis Glencross goal.

In Edmonton, he replaced Ray Emery, facing seven shots and giving up two goals before being replaced himself. Both the goals, by Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, required big saves but neither were unstoppable. On Hall’s goal, Crawford gave up a bad rebound.

He also gave up a rebound on one of two Bobby Ryan scores for the Ducks a few nights later. Ryan’s second tally wasn’t Crawford’s fault as the puck was redirected to his stick for an easy one but could Crawford had stopped a Teemu Selanne tally on the power play? Could have? Yes. Should have? Debatable.

Former teammate Antti Niemi had a magnificent game against the Hawks the day before Thanksgiving while Crawford played well enough but only had to stop 21. Alas, a Jason Demers point shot fluttered by Crawford for the game’s only goal.

Even Saturday, in a tight, 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, Crawford completely whiffed at a Jarret Stoll shot tying the game at the time for the Kings. But he went on to make some big saves to secure the victory. If you think this is piling on, it’s not. Even Crawford was critical of himself after the win in Los Angeles.

“I haven’t been getting the results that I wanted,” he said. “I feel like I need to give a little bit more.”

That night he did but it’s been the exception more than the norm lately.

Then came the freshest game in everyone’s memory: An awful night Tuesday at the United Center against the Coyotes.

In all four goals scored by Phoenix there were defensive breakdowns but Crawford never bailed out the guys in front of him. It was a signature of his play last season, especially compared to Marty Turco, who was unable to do so. Antti Niemi did the same the season before when Cristobal Huet could not.

Daymond Langkow snuck one through Crawford early in the first period to set the tone for the night.

“Sneaking one by” was an attribute that doomed Turco a year ago. Crawford had few leaks back then.

Shane Doan’s goal was a tough one to stop but again Crawford didn’t come out of the crease and “make himself big” as is his usual style. Later, he lost track of the puck as Ray Whitney tallied right in front of him. A fourth goal ended his night.

If a netminder can bail out his defense it gives the players in front of him a world of confidence. No player should be afraid to make a mistake. They’re going to happen. Crawford just needed to make a stop on a few of the above examples, not all of them. And even in some losses he still came up big, but it’s the saves that aren’t made that make the biggest difference.

If the Hawks are going to struggle in net they need their defense to come up big; if their defense has issues their netminder has to bail them out. If both are slumping or worse, broken, the Hawks are going to need a lot of goals to stay in the race.

Odds are Crawford will break out of his slump. He’s technically sound and has shown no signs of pressure issues since taking over the No. 1 job last season. Look to the playoff series last year against Vancouver as evidence of his fortitude. But with the Hawks still figuring things out on defense the sooner Crawford returns to elite play, the better.