SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Corey Crawford came to camp, and here came the old questions: The team is stacked at forward and on defense, a favorite to win the ultimate prize, but isn’t the weakness obvious? Can the goalie handle the pressure? Can he get the job done?
This was last month at Team Canada’s orientation camp in Calgary, not this week at the Chicago Blackhawks’ training camp at Notre Dame. But it was the same old story, and so Crawford didn’t seem fazed. He seemed prepared.
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“Definitely,” he said. “That’s just one thing that went along with all the experience I’ve gotten, and that was probably one of the biggest things – not to listen to anyone and just worry about what I’m doing.”
Crawford, at age 28, should have little left to prove. He is no longer a minor-leaguer trying to make it. He is no longer the goaltender who gave up some softies in a first-round playoff loss in 2012.
He is the goaltender who led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2013, the goaltender who received a championship belt from his teammates for being their best player in the playoffs, the goaltender who received a six-year, $36 million contract extension on Sept. 2. The man beat Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Quick and Tuukka Rask, in succession.
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“I think he answered a lot of questions: Can he do it? Can he win big games? Does he react differently in different situations?” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “That composure is something that you get tested, and I thought he answered that in the right way.”
The NHL’s general managers still voted Crawford behind his backup for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender in the regular season. He went 19-5-5 with a 1.94 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and five shutouts, and he finished eighth for the award – one spot behind Ray Emery, who went 17-1-0 with a 1.94 GAA, .922 save percentage and three shutouts.
A media panel still voted him behind winger Patrick Kane for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. Crawford went 16-7 with a 1.84 GAA, .932 save percentage and a shutout. Though Kane deserved the award for his clutch goal-scoring, and though other Blackhawks had compelling cases, too, if anyone was snubbed, it was Crawford.
And you know, you just know, if the Blackhawks stumble at any point, if Crawford’s play slips at all, the goalie won’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Crawford could act offended and do the prove-you-wrong thing. Crow could crow about his accomplishments and shove them in the faces of all who have doubted him or snubbed him or worse.
He won’t. It won’t do any good. It would give power to the doubters and add snickers to the snubs, and it would go against the don’t-listen-to-anyone thing. It’s better, much better, to keep the attitude that got him here.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself or think just because of what happened it’s going to be easier,” Crawford said. “It might get harder. I don’t want to think just because we won and I played well it’s going to come easy or naturally. You’ve got to work for what you get.”
Crawford said his work ethic once wasn’t good enough. He spent virtually all of his first five professional seasons in the minors. At training camp, or when he shuttled up for a stint, he would watch what veteran Nikolai Khabibulin did on and off the ice.
“I worked pretty hard,” Crawford said, “but I wasn’t in the shape I needed to be at this level.”
Many elite goalies need to add technique to harness their athleticism. Crawford was the opposite. He was a blocker who needed to add athleticism to make the kind of world-class saves that are critical in the NHL. He still relies on his technique, but now he has more to his game – and a better temperament. A bad goal doesn’t bother him like it used to.
“I think he’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Khabibulin said. “He’s really good technically, I think. He controls himself really well, whether it’s good or bad. He seems to be staying pretty even, which is I think a very important quality for a goalie, because I think the whole team is looking at you. If they see a little bit of instability, you don’t know which way it’s going to go. I think he does that really well besides the ability of stopping the puck.”
He could do that better. Asked what challenge he faces this season, Quenneville said: “He’s still a young goalie. I still think that consistency is something you look for in goaltending – predictability, dependability.”
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Crawford still faces questions. He still has a team to make, even if it’s Team Canada and not the Blackhawks anymore. He still could inspire more confidence at times.
He needs to make some adjustments, too. He has a new goalie coach, Steve Weeks, because after a decade with the Blackhawks, Stephane Waite left for the Montreal Canadiens. He has a new partner, Khabibulin, who rejoined the organization after Emery left for the Philadelphia Flyers. He has smaller leg pads, because new rules trimmed two inches off the top of his old monsters. When he opens up – say, moving laterally on an against-the-grain shot – he will be more vulnerable than before.
“Two inches doesn’t seem like much,” he said, “but it’s a lot in certain situations.”
That’s OK. Crawford knows the answers to these questions. He’s used to this scenario, committed to improving, ready to adjust. And what are two inches when you’ve come so far already? Yeah, same old story. Just remember: The last one had a happy ending.
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