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Hawks GM says re-signing restricted G Corey Crawford one of top off-season priorities

Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville during a news conference at the end of their NHL hockey season, Thursday, April 28, 2011, in Chicago. The Blackhaws were eliminated in the first round after a seven-game series against the Vancouver Canucks, the league's top team in the regular season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville during a news conference at the end of their NHL hockey season, Thursday, April 28, 2011, in Chicago. The Blackhaws were eliminated in the first round after a seven-game series against the Vancouver Canucks, the league's top team in the regular season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO - Sorting out a long season that came to a crushing end, the Chicago Blackhawks held their exit meetings Thursday and got ready for an off-season that came too quickly. Their defence of the Stanley Cup title is over.

Coming off a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 7 to the Vancouver Canucks two nights earlier, the Blackhawks were still smarting from their ouster, especially after they'd rallied from a 3-0 deficit to force the deciding game.

Some showed battle scars, such as star Patrick Kane, who was sporting a cut near his right eye.

"It's definitely something that will sink in. You got to let those experiences sink it and absorb it a little bit to learn from it," captain Jonathan Toews said. "It wasn't fun."

Now they head into an off-season that will certainly be different from the one a year ago. For starters, it will last longer and there won't be a summer of Stanley Cup celebrations.

And there's another major change from a year ago: general manager Stan Bowman won't be strapped by pressing salary cap concerns that forced a roster overhaul.

After winning last June, the Blackhawks jettisoned 10 players who played roles in their championship, and it took awhile for the team to mesh this season with all the new faces. Chicago's slow start was one reason the Blackhawks ended up just making the playoffs on the final day, when Minnesota's upset of Dallas gave Chicago the eighth seed.

"It was a grind," Bowman said of the season. "We were playing catch up. It was not the start we wanted. It put us in a difficult spot."

Bowman's top priority will be re-signing goalie Corey Crawford, who beat out veteran Marty Turco for the starting role and then played well in the first-round series, including the Game 7 overtime loss. Crawford is one of the team's restricted free agents.

Even though he gave up the game-winning goal following a turnover in Game 7 against Vancouver, Crawford's play drew rave reviews. In 57 regular-season games, Crawford's goals-against average was 2.30 and he posted four shutouts. His goals against in the series versus the Canucks was only 2.21.

"It's one thing to be given a chance to be the No. 1 goalie, but then take it and run with like he did," Bowman said. "He's a guy we're going to focus on right out of the gate. Knowing he's there makes everybody on the team comfortable."

And the low-key Crawford, a 26-year-old rookie, made it known that he's hoping to stay.

"I want to be here," he said. "We'll try to get something done that both sides are happy with."

After an extended season a year ago and a short off-season, the Blackhawks played tired at times. Duncan Keith, the Norris Trophy winner last season, acknowledged that he wasn't as excited starting the season and had trouble keeping his interest level up at times.

There were also injuries throughout the season to players such as Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland and Brian Campbell. Coach Joel Quenneville was hospitalized with an ulcer. And there were bouts of erratic play with missed opportunities and points that the Blackhawks felt they left on the ice.

"We had inconsistencies in our game. We walked the tight rope all year," Quenneville said.

Toews said the team let the off-season changes become a distraction.

"All year you got to answer questions about the trades and losing half your team and then the short off-season, how those things are going to affect your season, all those different excuses that people are making for you," he said.

"And the last thing you want to do is agree with that and buy into it and say, 'Hey you're right it is taking a toll on our team.' Those things are realities and you got to battle through them."

The Blackhawks had difficulty winning games that were tied after two periods and they finished 24-17 in the regular season at the United Center, where they were 29-8-4 the previous winter. They were 2-1 in the playoffs at home.

They did run off an eight-game winning streak starting in late February when they appeared to be re-establishing themselves, but then they struggled just to get back to the post-season.

There was a lift from players who were acquired late in the season such as Chris Campoli and Michael Frolik and younger players such as Ben Smith, who had three goals in the playoffs, and Nick Leddy. Campoli and Frolik also are restricted free agents.

Bowman said another priority will be to work out a long-term deal for Patrick Sharp, who had a career-high 71 points, including a team-best 34 goals. Sharp has one year remaining on his contract.

"I would love to sign right now," Sharp said.

Sharp said the departing message among the players was simple.

"All 82 games matter. I think we got caught in that group of four to six to eight teams that were fighting for a playoff spot every night and that's taxing," he said.

"We put ourselves in that position and the message was to come back next year excited to play hockey, get off to a great start and put ourselves in a spot to go deep in the playoffs."

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