Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford turns away a shot by Blues center David Backes for a third period save as the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the St. Louis Blues 3-1 Sunday February 19, 2012 at the United Center. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times
Updated: March 21, 2012 8:13AM
The heat will never be off Corey Crawford until he masters the Antti Niemi art of allowing four or five goals only when his team scores six or seven.
But the way the Blackhawks have been going, Crawford allowing one when his team scores two or three will maintain his status as a goaltender the Hawks might be able to win it all with. Or at least the best chance they’ve got.
After the 3-1 victory Sunday over the St. Louis Blues in a ‘‘Hockey Day in America’’ matinee before 22,077 fans at the United Center, the Hawks have won three consecutive games with Crawford after breaking a nine-game losing streak in New York against the Rangers last week.
But while the offense carried the bulk of the load with first-period flurries against the Rangers and Blue Jackets, it was Crawford’s excellence early against the Blues while Brian Elliott was shutting out the Hawks that made third-period goals by Duncan Keith, Dave Bolland and Marian Hossa mean something.
Crawford stopped 29 of 30 shots overall, including breakaways by Andy McDonald and Chris Stewart among several quality saves. But he was particularly good in the first period — stopping the Blues’ first 14 shots before a tough-luck goal by McDonald with 23 seconds left in the period.
‘‘We needed a goalie win,’’ Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘Today was a goalie win. Crawford was instrumental in keeping us in the game.’’
Crawford has stopped 84 of 88 shots in his last three games, a .955 save percentage the Hawks can thrive on. It’s a huge jump from his .901 season percentage and the unacceptable .854 in five losses during the nine-game losing streak that put the Hawks’ postseason status in jeopardy.
Crawford said he didn’t lose confidence during the recent downturn but doesn’t feel he’s playing that much differently now than he was then.
‘‘Obviously, I made some adjustments,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t think I was playing terribly. I wanted to play better. I needed to play better. So it was more of a hunger or a need to play better than getting down on myself.’’
Then what’s the difference?
‘‘I’m a little more in control,’’ he said. ‘‘Sometimes I was sliding out of position or getting into the net too much, where it was costing us a goal here or there. That’s a huge amount when you’re giving up a goal like that almost every game. I was just trying to stay in control and stay in the net.’’
Crawford’s play has helped resuscitate a team that seemed to have too many stars, too many veterans and too much leadership to lose nine in a row.
‘‘He’s the backbone to our team,’’ said Bolland, who scored the tie-breaking goal on a deflection off Blues center David Backes’ skate with 6:57 left in the third period.
Even with three consecutive victories, the Hawks (32-21-7, 71 points) still are sixth in the Western Conference playoff race — eight points behind the Blues (36-16-7, 79 points) and only six points ahead of the ninth-seeded Kings (27-21-11, 65 points). But Crawford’s resurgence gives them hope that they won’t have to sweat it out like they did last season.
‘‘It’s nice to see,’’ Patrick Kane said. ‘‘He’s really excited about where he’s at. It’s good to have confidence in him. We’ve seen it all last year, how good he was. We know what a great goaltender he can be.’’