ST. PAUL, Minn. — He is not Martin Brodeur. He is not Patrick Roy. Corey Crawford will not set NHL records or go down as one of the greatest goaltenders of all-time.
But he has won the Stanley Cup. He could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. And Tuesday night – not long after he was benched despite all he had accomplished – he delivered a 30-save shutout to give the Chicago Blackhawks a 1-0 win and 3-0 lead in their second-round series with the Minnesota Wild.
“He’s a star against us,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo. “He’s Brodeur. He’s Roy. He’s everybody against us.”
Credit Crawford for mental toughness. For years, he has been considered a weak link on a team with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and company. It has been easy to play the goat, hard to play the hero. He even faced questions two years ago, when he posted a .932 save percentage in the playoffs and the ’Hawks won the Cup. Kane won the Conn Smythe, but Crawford could have – and maybe should have.
Maybe all that steeled him. He was good this season – going 32-20-5 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .924 save percentage – but everything unraveled in the first game of the playoffs. He allowed three goals on 12 shots and got yanked after one period against the Nashville Predators, then watched Scott Darling allow zero goals on 42 shots as the Blackhawks came back to win, 4-3, in double overtime. He gave up six goals on 35 shots in a 6-2 loss in Game 2, then watched Darling start the next four games.
Crawford had started 57 straight playoff games for the Blackhawks. Now he was backing up a guy who had played only 14 NHL regular-season games, whose only NHL playoff experience was that lone stellar relief performance.
“I would say I wasn’t used to it, but there’s not much you can do,” Crawford said. “You’ve just got to work hard in practice and try to feel the best you can for the next time you get in.”
Easier said than done.
“It’s hard to look at the big picture in some cases,” Toews said. “You don’t know what’s going to come next, if your team is going to survive and continue to play and you might get another chance.”
Darling won back-to-back games, giving up four goals on 89 shots. But then he gave up four on 28 shots in a 5-2 loss in Game 5, and then he gave up three on 12 shots at the start of Game 6 – just like Crawford had at the start of Game 1.
With the Blackhawks facing a 3-1 hole and the prospect of a Game 7, coach Joel Quenneville yanked Darling and went back to Crawford. He gave up zero goals on 13 shots as the ’Hawks won, 4-3, and clinched the series.
“He didn’t worry about it,” Toews said. “I think he embraced, we all embraced, the fact Scotty stepped up and played great and helped us get through that series. The next chance he got, he was ready for it. I think he’s really built off that. I think for anyone, you maybe go through your worst-case scenario, you kind of feel like there’s nothing left to lose and you go out there and play loose and have fun, and I think he’s doing that right now.”
Crawford was solid in Game 1 against the Wild, making 30 saves in a 4-3 win. He was better in Game 2, making 30 saves in a 4-1 win. He was at his best in Game 3. The Blackhawks withstood an early barrage, took the lead on a Kane power-play goal 14:06 into the first and mostly held on the rest of the way. They were outshot in the second, 12-9. They were outshot in the third, 10-4. The Wild had more possession and more scoring chances.
Mikael Granlund had a breakway midway through the second; Crawford stopped him with his blocker. A puck bounced around in the crease midway through the third and rolled on its edge toward the goal line; Crawford lost sight of it, backed up into his cage, found it again and swiped it away with his blocker.
Yeo said Minnesota didn’t get the result it probably deserved. Quenneville called it a “goalie win.” Crawford gave the Blackhawks their first 3-0 series lead since 2010, when they swept the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final.
“He settled down,” Quenneville said. “Came back in Game 6 versus Nashville, game’s on the line, did what he had to do to get the win. Got some confidence off that, and he’s been rock-solid in this series. We’re very happy with how he’s handled things. You look back to the regular season, how good he’s been, and it’s the way he’s been all year.”
Bottom line: If Crawford were the type to crumble, he would have crumbled long ago.
“I think when you’re a good goalie and you’re a good player, you believe in yourself,” Keith said. “People want to say they don’t think you’re good? It’s just talk. You believe in yourself. As a team we know what kind of goalie he is and how he’s been for us over the last few years, and we don’t play good in front of him, we hang him out to dry on some plays, what can you do? I just think for Crow, it’s believing in yourself. I think that’s all it was. Sometimes things aren’t going to go your way. Just stay even and get through it.”
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