CHICAGO – The beat goes on for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Despite not playing their best on Sunday night at United Center, they still found a way to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1 and remain the only team in the National Hockey League that hasn't lost a game in regulation – highlighted by a standout goaltending performance from Corey Crawford.
They won't get much time to rest. The Edmonton Oilers come into town on Monday night for another chance to break Chicago's NHL-record streak of 18 straight games to start a season with at least one point earned.
"We've just been able to play pretty solid [every game]," Crawford said. "Everyone's had that kind of defensive-minded game. Guys are coming back and helping out our defense, but we're also taking care of the puck and not trying to force too much. That's been a key factor for us."
Playing for the first time in four games, following an injury, Crawford upped his record to 8-0-0 and earned his second shutout of the season by making 28 saves against Columbus (5-12-2) – the last-place team in the Western Conference.
Crawford keyed a fifth-straight victory for the Blackhawks (15-0-3), whose depth and balance are giving opponents fits. It's not just big-name stars like captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa leading the charge during this remarkable stretch. It's also young guys like versatile centers Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw.
Kruger didn't record a point against Columbus, but was credited with three takeaways and did his usual yeoman's work on the penalty kill. He played a strong game overall in place of injured second-line center Dave Bolland, while Shaw scored the game's lone goal late in the second period on his only shot.
Shaw also led Chicago with four hits and won 67 percent of the faceoffs he took while centering a third line that hasn't missed a beat without Bolland this season.
"It's been one of the biggest things for us, other than the way we're playing defensively and our goaltending," Toews said of the Blackhawks' balance. "Every single night we've got guys like [rookie] Brandon Saad or Andrew Shaw scoring winning goals, and it's great. It takes the pressure off the guys that are always expected to score goals. It makes us much more dangerous and difficult to play against."
Defense and goaltending are also making it tough on opposing teams. Crawford didn't miss a beat after sitting out those four games with an undisclosed upper-body injury and then stepping in for Ray Emery – who'd won four straight and had a hot hand himself.
"I just focus on whatever comes at me, but our guys did a good job to let me see pucks, clear rebounds and a couple times made some big blocks on a couple backdoor plays," Crawford said. "It feels good to get back in there and play again.
Crawford wasn't the only reason it was such a low-scoring game. Columbus goalie Steve Mason (26 saves) nearly matched him save for save and kept the Blue Jackets either locked in a scoreless tie or within striking distance all game.
The first two periods were largely dominated by defensive play and big saves, but each team also squandered golden scoring chances by firing loose pucks over the crossbar at large net openings.
Derick Brassard missed from the high slot in the first for Columbus and Brent Seabrook misfired from around the same area just 0:35 into the second on a rebound of Hossa's close-range wrister. Mason also stopped Hossa about five minutes later in the second on a breakaway, after the Blackhawks star stole a pass from James Wisniewski at the Columbus blue line and walked in alone.
Wisniewski made up for it by threading a perfect stretch pass down the middle of the ice to Vinny Prospal with 5:50 left in the period for a Blue Jackets' breakaway, but the wrister he fired from 19 feet away clanged off the metal at the top right corner of the net to keep it scoreless.
The Blue Jackets also came up empty on five power plays, including three in the third.
"Our goaltender played really well for us and we played a good game, [but] the power play was not good enough," Brassard said. "When you have six or seven chances and you lose a game 1-0, it was obviously not good enough. The execution was not good."
On the flipside, Chicago's penalty-killing efforts have now thwarted all nine combined power plays faced in the past two games.
It has allowed the Blackhawks enough leeway to come up with timely goals like Shaw's, which he scored with 1:27 left in the second. Shaw's wrister from the low slot didn't meet the same misfortune as Prospal's, after Bryan Bickell slid him a pretty backhand pass from the corner.
Instead, the puck ripped into the top right corner of the net and put Chicago up 1-0 heading into the third. That's all Crawford needed.
"He was good tonight," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of his goaltender. "He was quick, especially on the side-to-side plays on the power play. I thought he tracked the puck extremely well. It looked like he wasn't off for any time at all. He had a couple extra days there and got ready."
In the third, Kane nearly pushed it to a two-goal margin midway through with a pretty spin move in the right circle, but Mason was up to the challenge. He made a nice pad save on the other side of the net and kept his team within a goal.
The Blue Jackets just couldn't knot it and it was a stinging end to a tough six-game road trip. Columbus went 1-5-0 on the journey, but five of the games were decided by one goal and the other – a 5-3 loss to Phoenix – was a one-goal game until an empty-net score sealed it.
"You look at this road trip that we're on, six games, other than the Phoenix game … they were all one-goal games," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said. "We're giving up maybe two goals a game, maybe three goals a game, but we can't generate anything and we can't finish right now in the offensive zone."