CHICAGO – Corey Crawford has never been considered an elite goaltender. Even as the Chicago Blackhawks dominated the NHL this season, he wasn’t the centre of attention on a team featuring Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Tuukka Rask was in net when the Boston Bruins blew a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 and then had a great seat on the bench a year later when Tim Thomas led them to a Stanley Cup. With Thomas gone, the starting job was his.
Now the young goalies are across the ice from each other in the Cup final, and in the spotlight, getting the kind of attention usually reserved for the best in the world.
“Right now we have a battle of two goaltenders that are at the peak of their game,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
It’s particularly a remarkable ascent for Crawford, who was once considered a weak link on the Blackhawks’ talented roster. During the regular season he was tied for third in the NHL with a 1.94 goals-against average and tied for fifth with a .926 save percentage as the Blackhawks captured the Presidents’ Trophy. In the playoffs his numbers are even better (1.73 and .936), and he’s a major reason why Chicago is here, up 1-0 on the Bruins.
“Obviously having a good goaltender can give the whole team a lot of confidence,” defenceman Duncan Keith said. “He’s been great all playoffs and all season long. He definitely gives us that confidence, and it’s nice to see him get some recognition.”
Recognition starts with Crawford being respected as one of the better goalies in the league. But it doesn’t end there.
Now there is some buzz about Crawford being an option for Canada’s Olympic team in Sochi in 2014, given the uncertainty surrounding the position and his strong performance this spring. There are lingering questions about Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury and others, but the fact that Crawford is even being touted as a possibility for Canada makes Toews happy.
“I certainly think he deserves it,” said Toews, who helped lift Canada to a gold medal at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. “I feel like, to get to that level, you need to have some sort of name in the media and have people know who you are. If they didn’t really before, I think everyone knows who Corey Crawford is now and the influence and the effect he’s had on our team all season and in this Cup run that we’ve had.”
Crawford, from Chateauguay, Que., has never played for Canada in international competition. He said he has never even got a look at a selection camp. That all could change, especially if he helps Chicago to a championship.
“I’m worried about winning a Stanley Cup right now,” Crawford said. “Obviously that would be a huge honour. But right now there are other things to take care of.”
The Blackhawks are three victories away from hoisting the Cup and that has a lot to do with Crawford’s stellar play. Coach Joel Quenneville praised the 26-year-old’s consistency, and several teammates lauded him for being even-keeled amid chaos in the triple-overtime Game 1 victory.
Being poised in that situation is a testament to how far Crawford has come.
“Had to answer a lot of questions this year going into the season: What about our goaltending?” Quenneville said. “We said we’re very comfortable with Corey. Think he’s got the capability of being a top goalie in the league.”
Yet for so long Crawford hasn’t been thought of as even a top-10 goalie. Asked why he has constantly been overlooked, Toews and Crawford had the same response: “I don’t know. You tell me.”
Rask hasn’t had to overcome a lack of respect. Instead, his job has been to follow Thomas, who was far and away the top reason the Bruins won it all in 2011. Now the 26-year-old Finnish netminder is earning his own Conn Smythe Trophy talk.
“He’s been rock solid all season, all playoffs, has been keeping us in hockey games a lot of nights,” defenceman Dennis Seidenberg said. “It’s nice to have him as your last backbone.”
Rask had to forget about past struggles, especially the playoff loss to the Flyers as a 23-year-old. That’s a distant memory now as he’s at the centre of the Bruins’ playoff run.
“I don’t think it surprises any of us that he’s at that elite level,” Bruins forward Daniel Paille said. “I think we should consider ourselves fortunate that we have a goalie like that.”
The Blackhawks feel the same way, even as Crawford continues to go under-appreciated, like Antti Niemi, now a Vezina Trophy finalist with the San Jose Sharks who was in net for Chicago’s 2010 Cup team. The lack of credit doesn’t seem to matter much.
“He’s a pressure player,” Toews said. “I think we all know in this locker-room how good Corey Crawford is.”