Corey Crawford returns to Blackhawks lineup tonight

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 21: Corey Crawford #50 of the Chicago Blackhawks tends goal against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center on December 21, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

CHICAGO – It’s been a while. A long while. Frankly, the Blackhawks haven’t been as good without him.

After playing in his last game on December 23rd, Corey Crawford’s team went 19-25-7. Because of that, the Blackhawks didn’t make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

During that stretch, the team’s No. 1 goalie was recovering from a concussion that lingered for over nine months. Joel Quenneville used five different starting goaltenders during that time, including Cam Ward for the first five games of the 2018-2019 season.

Now, finally, 51 games later, Crawford  back in the net for the Blackhawks.

Both he and Quenneville said on Wednesday that the goalie will likely be on the ice Thursday night when the Blackhawks host the Arizona Coyotes in their sixth game of the season. It’s the first contest since Crawford left that December 23rd game against the Devils in New Jersey in the first period after allowing three quick goals.

A final decision on Crawford’s status will be made at Thursday morning’s pre-game skate, but a major milestone for the goalie’s comeback appears imminent.

“It feels good to get back to myself,” said Crawford on Wednesday. “Feeling good, feeling clear.”

This completes a slow road to a return to the ice for Crawford, who practiced a few times during the regular season last year before getting shut down for the season as concussion symptoms persisted. In training camp, the goalie first started out taking pre-practice shots from goalie coach Jimmy Waite and an occasional teammate.

Earlier in October, Crawford was medically cleared to return to practice with the middle of the month targeted as a possible return date. Barring a chance on Thursday morning, that timeline will play out, and Crawford feels ready as ready as he can for the start.

“Practices have been great, been getting the timing a little bit more, getting up to speed, reading shots and all that stuff,” said Crawford. “It will be nice to finally get in one.”

Quenneville would say the same, considering how good Crawford was before leaving the lineup last season. He was 16-9-2 and had a 2.27 goals against average before his season came to an end, and the Blackhawks were over .500.

When he left, everything changed, which adds perspective to his return this season.

“He means a lot to the team. Last year was a good example of how important he was and how well he was playing,” said Quenneville of Crawford. “We got off to a decent start and he was a big factor in it. We know that goaltending is a big part of the team; your success a lot of nights depends on him, and his consistency has always been in place.

“He looks good in the net. He’s been out for a long, long time. Is there rust? Do we expect rust? I think the way he’s competing, he’s practicing, and finding pucks, he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. ”

Crawford is hoping that translates to the United Center ice on Thursday, when he finally returns to the crease after nearly a full year of concussion recovery.

“I’m sure I’ll be a little anxious, some nerves,” said Crawford of his season debut. “We’ll see.”

Rest assured, his team and fans can’t wait.