HAWKS’ HOPES REST WITH CRAW­FORD, PENALTY KILL

HAWKS WILL NEED VET­ERAN CRAW­FORD, PENALTY KILL TO COME UP BIG AGAINST OIL­ERS IN ED­MON­TON

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BY BEN POPE | BPOPE@SUN­TIMES.COM | @BENPOPECST

Corey Craw­ford spent much of the fall in 2019 trend­ing to­ward a backup role. Then New Year’s Day came and went, and some­thing switched back on for the griz­zled vet­eran.

In 20 games since that point, Craw­ford’s save per­cent­age sky­rock­eted to .928, keep­ing the Hawks on the fringe of the play­off bub­ble.

Do­ing so be­hind the league’s most por­ous de­fense made it all the more laud­able. In terms of goals saved above ex­pec­ta­tion (ac­count­ing for qual­ity of shots faced), Craw­ford ranked fifth in the league dur­ing that span, sav­ing 10.9 goals more than he should’ve.

When the sea­son paused March 12, it seemed Craw­ford’s hero­ics wouldn’t be enough for the 12th-place Hawks. But af­ter the strangest spring and sum­mer the NHL has ever seen, 12th turned out to be enough.

Now Craw­ford, 35, and the Hawks will be­gin their post­sea­son jour­ney Satur­day with Game 1 of a best-of-five se­ries against the Oil­ers in Ed­mon­ton, Al­berta.

“We’re ex­cited,’’ coach Jeremy Col­li­ton said. ‘‘We’ve done the work, done the prepa­ra­tion, and the guys have got­ten bet­ter and bet­ter as we’ve gone here. We’re go­ing to learn a lot [in the] first pe­riod just as far as how the games are go­ing to go.”

Col­li­ton, like coun­ter­part Dave Tip­pett, de­clined Fri­day to ex­plic­itly name a start­ing goalie for Game 1.

It would be shock­ing if Craw­ford — af­ter bat­tling back from COVID-19 to re­join the team at the last mo­ment — wasn’t the guy, though. He par­tic­i­pated fully in prac­tice all week, stopped all 11 shots he faced in the ex­hi­bi­tion Wed­nes­day against the Blues and gave him­self a vote of con­fi­dence Thurs­day.

“I should be ready to go, un­less some­thing crazy hap­pens last minute,” he said. “I should be all right.”

For the Hawks’ chances to pull the up­set, he needs to be.

His game readi­ness is re­ally the only uncer­tainty left. He said Thurs­day that his puck-track­ing came back quickly be­cause he sees so many shots in prac­tice ev­ery day. He ap­pre­ci­ated fac­ing sev­eral St. Louis power plays, too. But there’s still one area that con­cerns him.

“See­ing through a bunch of bod­ies when the point shots come in, or when guys cut through the mid­dle and shoot through traf

fic, those sit­u­a­tions are a lit­tle bit tougher,” he said. “Hope­fully, I catch up right away and get good feel­ings right away, but we’ll see.”

Craw­ford will at least get some help in front of him, with Calvin de Haan re­turn­ing from De­cem­ber shoul­der surgery and Con­nor Murphy over­com­ing a train­ing-camp groin in­jury. Both are ex­pected to play and will form the Hawks’ sec­ond de­fen­sive pair.

SCOUT­ING THE OIL­ERS

Mak­ing only their sec­ond play­off ap­pear­ance in 14 years, the up­start Oil­ers be­gan the sea­son 7-1-0 be­fore coast­ing to fifth place in the West.

They’re led by nearly un­stop­pable for­wards Leon Drai­saitl, whose 110 points in 71 games led the league, and Con­nor Mc­David, who was three points away from his fourth con­sec­u­tive 100-point sea­son when the pan­demic hit.

“We know that the top two guys in par­tic­u­lar — Mc­David and Drai­saitl — they’re go­ing to play a lot of the game,” Col­li­ton said. “So our guys have got to be ready when they get out there.”

Else­where on of­fense, James Neal’s resur­gence, Kailer Ya­mamoto’s break­out and Ryan Nu­gent-Hopkins’ con­sis­tency gave the twoheaded mon­ster ex­tra sup­port this sea­son.

The Oil­ers are much shakier on de­fense. The Hawks al­lowed the most op­po­nent scor­ing chances this sea­son, but the Oil­ers al­lowed the ninth-most. Dar­nell Nurse and Os­car Klef­bom are a be­low-av­er­age top pair. Ethan Bear had an im­pres­sive rookie year.

In goal, it’s un­clear whether Mikko Kosk­i­nen or Mike Smith will start. Kosk­i­nen’s .917 save per­cent­age eas­ily trumped Smith’s .902, but he has never played in an NHL play­off game.

CRIT­I­CAL MATCHUP

The Hawks will need a heroic per­for­mance by their penalty kill against the Oil­ers’ power play.

The Hawks’ penalty kill, led by spe­cial­ist Ryan Car­pen­ter, pleas­antly sur­prised by rank­ing ninth in the NHL. But the Oil­ers’ power play, with its 29.5% con­ver­sion rate, was the best the league has seen since 1979.

“You know, as a killer, you’re go­ing to give up shots,” Car­pen­ter said re­cently. “It’s just the na­ture of be­ing down a guy.

‘‘But [we’ll be] try­ing to limit the touches of Mc­David and Drai­saitl if we can. [We’ll] try to keep the shots to the out­side and do the best we can to let the goalie see the puck and be de­tailed on clears. All those lit­tle things.”

X-FAC­TOR

Drake Cag­giula is far from a Hawks star, but ev­ery­thing points to him pos­si­bly emerg­ing as a key part of this se­ries.

He played with the Oil­ers from 2016 to 2018. He’s mo­ti­vated by his ex­pir­ing con­tract. He’s fi­nally healthy.

And his scrappy style and un­der­rated scor­ing touch make him per­fectly suited for the post­sea­son.

“Play­offs are tough hockey, dirty hockey, and I like to play in those types of games, those types of ar­eas,” Cag­giula said Thurs­day.

“[I’ll] do what­ever I can to show­case that I can play this kind of style and play in these big games.”

HAWKS’ EX­PECTED LINEUP

For­ward lines: Do­minik Kuba­lik-Jonathan Toews-Bran­don Saad; Alex Ny­lan­der-Dy­lan Strome-Patrick Kane; Alex DeBrin­cat-Kirby Dach-Drake Cag­giula; Ryan Car­pen­ter-David Kampf-Matthew High­more.

De­fen­sive pair­ings: Adam Bo­qvistDun­can Keith; Calvin de Haan-Con­nor Murphy; Olli Maatta-Slater Koekkoek.

Goal­tenders: Corey Craw­ford; Mal­colm Sub­ban. ✶

JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IM­AGES

Corey Craw­ford, who has bat­tled back from COVID-19, will have to be great in goal for the Hawks to have a chance to knock off the Oil­ers.

JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IM­AGES

Hawks winger Drake Cag­giula says his scrappy play­ing style is per­fectly suited for play­off hockey.

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