CHICAGO –Corey Crawford could've been rattled, could've pouted and just generally taken what appears to be a demotion a lot differently than he did.
Instead, the second-year Chicago Blackhawks goalie patiently waited to get back in the net after sitting for six straight games in favor of veteran backup Ray Emery. He then came through big when given the chance to start on Wednesday night against the team he grew up rooting for – the Montreal Canadiens.
Crawford earned first-star of the game honors by making 20 saves in Chicago's 5-1 rout of the Canadiens in front of 22,081 at the United Center, which helped build some much-needed confidence for him in a turbulent season.
"It was a game for me, personally, where I had to come up with a solid game," said Crawford, who's from Montreal. "But I wasn't holding my stick tight. I was pretty relaxed out there and pretty confident."
Andrei Kostitsyn scored the lone goal for the Canadiens (13-15-7) – who lost for the fourth straight game despite having a 1-0 lead early in the second. Peter Budaj (23 saves) started and took the loss for the Habs, who travel to play the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night before heading into the NHL's Christmas break period.
It was a particularly galling game for Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban, who finished with a minus-2 rating and is minus-4 in his past two games.
Last season against the Hawks in Montreal, Subban drew a penalty on Toews and then scored the game-winning goal in overtime to give Chicago a gut-wrenching defeat. This season, Subban was lamenting his own play rather harshly.
"It has nothing to do with age," said the 22-year old Subban. "Minus-4 in the past two games, it just can't happen – not when you're playing 25 or 26 minutes a night. You've got to be better. It's as simple as that, really. I know that I have to be better. I can't cost my team and I've cost them two games in a row."
Crawford might have felt that way back on Dec. 5, when he was pulled from a start against the Phoenix Coyotes at home in the Hawks' first game back from a long – and at times rough – road trip. Since that game, Crawford hadn't sniffed the net in six games, while Emery keyed a five-game winning streak.
If the experience shook Crawford, it was hard to tell.
"He looked sharp, looked quick (and) big in the net as well," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's good to see him come back the way he did and I commend him throughout that process how mentally he was focused and ready and prepared. He did a great job."
Crawford shook off any rust early and made several good stops in the first period. He remained strong the rest of the way, despite giving up the goal to Kostitsyn 5:35 into the second on a power play.
It was scored with Chicago's Michael Frolik in the penalty box for goaltender interference and came off a nice play by Kostitsyn – who tipped Tomas Plekanec's shot from the right circle over Crawford's glove-side shoulder into the net.
It took about six more minutes, but the Hawks finally broke through against Budaj with a pair of goals by Brunette and Sharp. They were separated by just 21 seconds and swung the momentum Chicago's way midway through the second.
Brunette carried the puck out from behind the Habs net and lifted a backhand shot that appeared to hit Budaj, then a Montreal defender and slip through the goalie's pads into the net to tie it 1-1. The goal was initially awarded to Toews, who took a poke at it in the crease, but replays showed the Chicago captain didn't touch it.
Sharp's goal came right afterward. He took a pass from Hossa and did the rest in the Habs zone – skating to the left circle, pulling it back to the slot past a sliding Chris Campoli and firing a wrister past Budaj into the top right corner of the net for a 2-1 lead at the 11:57 mark.
"It's always important to have a big shift after a goal, whether it's for or against," Sharp said. "(Toews) line did a good job of putting us on the board early and then we wanted to have a big shift afterwards. It was a big momentum swing in the game and up 2-1 we didn't sit back. We kept pressing and made it 3-1, 4-1 and 5-1."
That didn't happen until Crawford came up with the save of the game, however.
Following Sharp's score, Montreal shifted the pressure back to the Chicago end of the rink and nearly tied it up. After Crawford made a stop on a point blast, the puck kicked out to Max Pacioretty in the bottom of the left circle for a golden scoring opportunity on the rebound.
The whole left side of the net looked open when Pacioretty fired a hard wrister that eluded Seabrook's stick -- only to be deflected over the net at the last second by Crawford, who stuck out his goal stick just in time and made solid contact.
"It was a funny little rebound that kicked to the side and I just tried to get over there as quick as I could and get my stick in the right spot," Crawford said. "It's always nice (to make the save). It's better than the going in, I guess."
It stayed a one-goal game for the rest of the second and through half of the third before Stalberg potted his seventh goal of the season to make it 3-1 Chicago. It was Stalberg's second goal in as many games and fifth point in the last five. After taking a nice pass from Bickell in the slot, Stalberg wired a wrist shot past Budaj.
Toews added an empty-net goal -- his 20th of the season that tied him for the League lead with Steven Stamkos -- with 1:17 left and Bickell scored on Budaj – who'd re-entered the game – with 12 seconds left. Stalberg picked up his second point of the night with the primary assist, while rookie center Brandon Pirri was credited with a secondary helper in his first game back after being sent to the minors following the season-opener in Dallas.
1 - 0 MTL
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 CHI
3 - 1 CHI
4 - 1 CHI
5 - 1 CHI
Delay of game
Interference - Goalkeeper