Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford makes a save during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the San Jose Sharks in Chicago, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
The Chicago Blackhawks mounted a spirited third period comeback, but goals by Niklas Hjalmarsson and Michal Rozsival weren’t enough as they fell to the San Jose Sharks by a 3-2 margin in the shootout.
Here are our Three Stars of the game:
Third Star: Marcus Kruger
In a game that saw two different Blackhawks forwards benched for large chunks of the contest (Brandon Bollig and Bryan Bickell), Kruger picked up the slack in a big way, and even though his face-off numbers weren’t all that great against San Jose’s stable of quality centers, he excelled in other areas.
For starters, there was the assist he had on Rozsival’s goal in the third period. After the puck was dumped into the zone, Kruger won the race from the blue line to grab it, and turning back up ice, he found Rozsival waiting at the point. The ensuing shot ended up fooling Alex Stalock and gave the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead.
That willingness to hustle wasn’t just limited to the offensive side of things either. Later in that same period, Patrick Marleau got inside position on Kruger and managed to get up ice on a partial breakaway. As the players approached Corey Crawford’s net, Kruger never gave up on the play, and he aggressively back-checked the puck, preventing Marleau from getting off a shot and killing off the scoring opportunity.
That second play illustrates more thoroughly what Kruger is capable of. His willingness to do the little things has endeared him to Joel Quenneville, and even though his penalty killing prowess isn’t what it was last year, he’s still a good player to have on the ice at even strength.
Second Star: Niklas Hjalmarsson
Speaking of all-around efforts, Hjalmarsson’s game against the team that signed him to an offer sheet in 2010 (which the Blackhawks obviously matched) was one that showed a defenseman firing on all cylinders.
Defensively, Hjalmarsson was in top form, winning several battles along the boards and ultimately blocking five shots in the contest to prevent the Sharks’ advantage in shots on goal from getting any worse.
He also was a big part of the Hawks’ offense in the game, racking up four shots on goal as the Hawks tried desperately to get back in the game in the later stages. His third period goal came on one of those desperation type plays, but also showed some real intelligence as well. Patrick Sharp grabbed the puck along the boards, and passed it back below the goal line to Jonathan Toews. As
Toews broke toward open ice, two Sharks defenders collapsed in on him, leaving a seam in the middle of the ice. Seeing this, Hjalmarsson cut in, and when Toews’ pass found him in the slot, the Swedish defenseman didn’t miss, blasting a shot past Stalock’s glove to tie the game up at 1-1.
On a night when the forward lines were being shuffled frequently because of a lack of scoring, the defensive corps really did a great job of pitching in, and Hjalmarsson was arguably their best asset in the game.
First Star: Corey Crawford
The goal Crawford gave up to Jason Demers in the first period wasn’t the best moment of his career (he sat back way too far in his crease and was slow to cover the near post after Logan Couture got the puck behind the net), but the way he bounced back from it kept the Hawks in the game, and he was ultimately the biggest reason the team managed to get a point in the standings.
There was his breakaway stop on Andrew Desjardins in the first period, as he came out of the crease a bit to force the Sharks forward to take his shot early from the near side. Then, Crawford did the same thing to Dan Boyle, who got the puck on a nice feed from Joe Pavelski, but Crawford read it well and centered himself up while also giving Boyle nowhere to shoot the puck.
Crawford’s puck handling could still use some work, but seeing his confidence blossom against the Sharks has to be a good sign for Quenneville and the coaching staff as they attempt to ease Crawford back into the starting role.