Blackhawks crumble against Hurricanes after Collin Delia finally earns a starton May 5, 2021 at 2:30 am

Collin Delia spent more than three months as little more than a well-paid cheerleader.

Delia fell behind Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban in coach Jeremy Colliton’s goaltending rotation early on and was given no opportunities to reestablish himself as long as the team remained in contention.

“They’ve done an excellent job, so [I’m] just trying to be a cheerleader for them, support them the best I can, talk about things I’m seeing in their game, be another observer and give constructive criticism,” Delia said Monday. “If that’s my role up to this point, so be it. But I love to play, I love to compete.”

Finally this week, with the Hawks eliminated from the playoff race, Delia saw the ice again.

The 26-year-old Californian stopped all 19 shots he faced in relief Monday, then made a preplanned start Tuesday and stopped 22 of 26 shots in a 6-3 loss — inflated by two empty-net goals — against the Hurricanes.

It was his first NHL start since Jan. 17 and his first start at any level since a March 7 AHL rehab stint appearance.

“He was strong for us,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “He made some big saves. Not much to complain about there.”

Alex DeBrincat scored twice to extend his goal streak to four consecutive games and move into a tie for 4th in the NHL with 28 goals this season. Mike Hardman also scored his “surreal” first career NHL goal as the Hawks claimed a 2-0 first-intermission lead.

But those were the only bright spots for the Hawks, who have now lost six games in a row with just three left in the season. Four straight tallies by the Canes flipped that lead into a deficit the visitors could not overcome.

The Hawks’ defensive positioning and man-marking was suspect again, with the likes of Nikita Zadorov, Ian Mitchell and Wyatt Kalynuk getting caught in the wrong spots while Canes forwards found plentiful open space to attack.

“We’re learning some hard lessons, for sure,” Colliton said.

Even Delia, whose stellar 31 minutes Monday injected some intrigue into the late-season doldrums, fell back to earth with an .846 save percentage Tuesday — although he was far from the biggest culprit.

Colliton’s relationship with Delia traces back to the Rockford IceHogs’ 2017-18 season, and the two of them had several conversations this season to stay on the same page. Some of those occurred after Delia sought Colliton out, the latter said.

Why Colliton still went three months without giving Delia a chance, especially as Lankinen and Subban struggled in April, may never be known. Delia actually entered the season as the presumptive starter, having gone 7-5-3 with a serviceable .906 save percentage in his limited prior NHL experience, so it’s strange why two mediocre games in mid-January overrode that narrative for so long. But it’s in the past now.

“It’s hard to get that guy the reps they would want to have and the game action you’d want to have, especially with the roster situation,” Colliton said. “In the last month or so, he’s clearly done a good job to prepare himself for this opportunity.”

“It has been challenging, but you’ve got to be thankful for the opportunity to even be in this situation to begin with,” Delia said.

Delia has worked with Hawks goalie coach Jimmy Waite — often individually before or after the full-team practice, as he was rarely even included in those sessions — to improve his visual puck-tracking this season.

He was caught too deep in his crease at times Monday and Tuesday, but otherwise looked at least as competent as his competitors have lately behind this leaky defense.

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