VANCOUVER – Corey Crawford has a tough act to follow if he’s to become the second rookie goalie in as many years to backstop the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup.
He will have to emulate the unflappable Antti Niemi, who helped dismiss the Vancouver Canucks in six games in last season’s second round en route to Chicago’s first Cup in 49 years.
“Let’s worry about (Wednesday) first and we’ll go from there,” the even-keeled Crawford said after Tuesday’s practice to prepare Chicago for their playoff opener in Vancouver on Wednesday.
Crawford worked his way into the starting role after Niemi signed a free-agent contract with the San Jose Sharks.
He brings a grand total of 16 minutes of playoff experience to the best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final.
“I’m sure I’ll probably be a little bit nervous, it’s only normal going into your first playoff game,” Crawford said.
“I’ve just got to stick to my game and worry about what I can do.”
What the 26-year-old rookie from Montreal has done is compile a 33-18-6 record, supplanting veteran Marty Turco as Chicago’s go-to goalie. Turco hasn’t started since Feb. 11.
Crawford’s 2.30 goals-against average placed him in the NHL’s top 10 and he’s one of two goaltenders—along with Boston’s Tim Thomas—to record more than 30 wins with fewer than 60 appearances.
While he lacks playoff experience, Crawford was hardened by a stretch drive that saw the Blackhawks claim the last conference playoff berth when Dallas lost to Minnesota on Sunday.
“I think every game helped me experience-wise,” said the six-foot-two, 200-pound Crawford.
“It’s nice to be able to play 50-some games. I’ll use all the experience I got to help me for the series.”
He will need it as he tries to outduel fellow Montreal native Roberto Luongo—an 11-year NHL veteran—in the Canuck goal.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t seem to think it’s a stretch that Crawford could capture some of Niemi’s magic this post-season.
“They’re very comparable as far as their approach and their demeanour down the stretch,” Quenneville said.
“He did what Antti did last year and you’ve got to commend him how he approached playing all these game, all big games for us and continued to get the job done.
“He’s big and he’s consistent and quietly goes about his business. He’s learned the league as he went through it.”
Crawford, who had only eight regular-season appearances for Chicago before this season, faced Vancouver once, a 7-1 victory on Nov. 7.
He’s aware of the challenge to be better than Luongo, but says his focus on the ice will lie elsewhere.
“I’m not going to worry too much about him,” he said. “Our shooters are going to focus on him. I’m worried about their guys, their shooters, their playmakers.”
Defenceman Brent Seabrook who, with partner Duncan Keith will likely face Vancouver’s top line, said Crawford is mature for a rookie and the club has confidence in him.
“He’s been great all season and we don’t expect anything different in the playoffs,” Seabrook said of Crawford and his .917 save percentage.
“He’s a big, square goalie. He cuts the angle down very well and does his job in front. He makes the first save and gives us an opportunity to clear the puck and help him out.”
While the Canucks want playoff redemption after being ousted in six games by Chicago two years in a row, the Stanley Cup champions are trying to make the most of a reprieve.
Chicago was staring playoff elimination in the face after a regulation loss to Detroit on the final day of the regular season, but Dallas missed an opportunity to claim the eighth spot by losing to Minnesota on the final day of the schedule.
“For us, we feel it’s a blessing to be in the playoffs and to get the break that we did on the last day of the regular season,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said.
“I think there’s something about that that’s going to keep us loose. We’re all fresh, we’re rejuvenated and we’re ready to go.”
Chicago’s task will be daunting. The Canucks led the NHL with 117 points, 20 more than Chicago
While Vancouver added grit to their lineup in the off-season, the Blackhawks underwent a makeover because of salary cap issues.
They could start the series without the entire third and fourth lines that played against the Canucks a year ago.
Gone are hulking Dustin Byfuglien, who scored four goals against Vancouver in last year’s playoffs, along with Andrew Ladd, Adam Burish, Kris Versteeg and Ben Eager.
“They have lost a lot of guys but I think they have brought in some new players that have stepped up as well,” Luongo said. “They know what it takes to win.”
Versatile centre Dave Bolland, who missed the final 14 games of the season with a concussion, skated on Tuesday as did left-winger Troy Brouwer, who is nursing a shoulder injury.
Quenneville said both felt good after practice but gave no indication when either could play.
Brouwer thought he could play in Game 1.
“Once you get into the heat of the game a lot of things that you’re feeling, you don’t pay attention to,” he said.
Bolland, who contributed five points against the Canucks in last year’s playoffs, seemed farther away.
“It was a tough time and I’m glad I’m over that hump,” said Bolland who is seeking to return to game shape without concussion symptoms.
“That’s just going to be day by day and I’ll see how I feel.”
NOTES: Chicago won the first two games of the season series while the Canucks prevailed in the final two. … Chicago had a string of 10 games allowing three or fewer goals until the 4-3 loss to Detroit in Game 82 … Vancouver allowed Chicago only one power-play goal in 20 man-advantage situations during the regular season …. The teams have met five times in the Stanley Cup playoffs but this is the first time in the opening round.