There are untold ways in which this season has been a grand disappointment for the Chicago Blackhawks. The once-perennial powerhouse wakes up Monday morning with one team separating them from last place in the NHL, losers of all but one of their past 10 games and primed for top odds in the draft lottery come season’s end. It’s been a season with few silver linings, very little on which the Blackhawks can hang their hat. But one positive, undoubtedly, had been the return of Corey Crawford.
While true that Crawford’s numbers aren’t those that would put him in any Vezina Trophy conversations — he boasts a mere .902 save percentage and bloated 3.28 goals-against average — it has been his mere presence, not his play, that was cause for minor celebration. Crawford, 33, had battled back from concussion symptoms that had put not just his season but his career in question. And following a 10-month absence from NHL action, one that began the day before the holiday break last season and spanned through to mid-October of the current campaign, Crawford had returned.
But on Sunday night in Chicago, with the San Jose Sharks in town, disaster struck.
With the Sharks searching for the equalizer late in the first period, a two-on-two play saw Logan Couture drive the net before a trailing Dylan Strome was shoved into the crease by a forechecking Evander Kane. Strome collided with Crawford, whose head struck the post as he went down. In the moments immediately following the collision, Crawford reached for his head. To the surprise of no one, he was removed from the game. And post-game, Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton delivered the news everyone had hoped he wouldn’t: Crawford had suffered a concussion.
This was always going to be the worst-case scenario when Crawford returned. While it wouldn’t have been easy to watch him shelved for any reason this season after fighting so hard to return, it would have been much easier to stomach if the veteran netminder missed time with a groin injury, hip ailment, tweaked knee or any other number of other bumps and bruises. But that Crawford has suffered another concussion, one that, in a cruel coincidence, comes almost one year to the day after the head injury that cost him 10 months of his career, is absolutely gut-wrenching.
No one wants to speculate what this might mean for Crawford. The nebulous nature of head injuries makes it impossible to know what the future holds for the netminder. We’ve seen in the past few seasons cases of goaltenders returning in relatively short order from head injuries, even in instances where it’s not their first. We’ve also seen months-long absences because of concussions and post-concussion symptoms, with Crawford’s case being one of the most notable. It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to surmise what kind of time away Crawford may be facing. It’d be equally as foolish to suggest he’ll return at all. We simply can’t know. Not yet, at least, and possibly not for days, weeks or months.
What we do know, however, is that Crawford’s injury has potential to turn an already forgettable and painful campaign into one spirals completely out of control.
Again, while Crawford’s numbers weren’t Vezina calibre, his play has been considerably better than that of counterpart Cam Ward, who appeared in relief Sunday only for the Blackhawks to surrender five unanswered goals en route to an ugly 7-3 defeat at the hands of the Sharks. As a result of the thumping, Ward’s SP dipped to a precarious .883 while his goals-against average ballooned to 4.17. Among netminders to have appeared in at least 10 games, Ward now has the second-worst SP and the highest GAA.
On some nights, Crawford was helping make a porous defense look somewhat respectable. With Ward, who has a league-worst minus-11.3 goals-saved above average — a measure of a netminder’s performance against a league-average keeper — at all strengths, one has to wonder if the Blackhawks will be able to outrun its shortcomings in goal. That’s not to put the onus entirely on Ward, either. Crawford’s absence likely means a third-stringer will need to get the call at some point in the not-too-distant future. That’s concerning given how thin the goaltending situation is in Chicago. One of Anton Forsberg or Collin Delia will be next in line behind Ward. Combined, the two posted a .907 SP on nearly 1,000 shots against last season, but neither has seen NHL action this season.
This is to say that while the Blackhawks were already facing the near-impossible task of clawing their way to respectability this season, the likelihood they’ll be able to do so if Crawford happens to be sidelined for any significant period is next to nothing. And if he can’t return in the near future, the season only stands to slip away further. At that point, the only silver lining this season might be a shot at the top pick in the draft, but even that little piece of good fortune will be shrouded in concern about the long-term health of their two-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender.