Even when the Blackhawks decided to go with Scott Darling for Game 3 of their first-round series against the Nashville Predators, it seemed inevitable that at some point, Corey Crawford would get back between the pipes as Chicago's starting netminder. After shutting the door in the series-deciding sixth game in a relief appearance of Darling, Crawford's chance to reclaim his starting role will begin with Game 1 of the Central Division final.
During Monday's meeting with the media following a team practice, coach Joel Quenneville said that Crawford, not Darling who won three games of the first-round series, will be in goal when the Wild enter the United Center for Game 1 later this week.
"It's his net," Quenneville told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. "And let's go."
Though some may be shocked to see Quenneville go back to his veteran starter after such a rocky start to his playoff, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise. For most of the past two seasons, the Blackhawks have relied on Crawford to backstop them. In 2012-13, he posted a 19-5-5 record en route to capturing the Jennings Trophy with Ray Emery as the goaltending duo with the fewest goals against. Later that season, he backstopped Chicago to their second Stanley Cup in four seasons.
But even with how remarkable his record was that season, some believed him to be no more than a product of his environment -- on a Blackhawks team that was so stacked, it was thought nearly any goaltender could have done what Crawford had that season. If there were still any doubters, though, Crawford did his best to silence them this season.
Of the 29 netminders to play at least 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5, Crawford ranked seventh in the NHL this season with a save percentage of .932, putting him in the same company as heralded starting goaltenders such as Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. He also posted a 32-20-5 record with two shutouts while the Blackhawks scored just 2.19 goals for per 60 minutes of even-strength time, which was the 13th lowest goal support of goaltenders with 2,000 minutes played.
That Darling was able to take the net away from Crawford wasn't simply the result of poor play by him, but rather the Blackhawks' continued slow starts. In nearly every game of the first round series, the Predators controlled the pace at the start of the contest and, when Chicago took a lead, Nashville applied insurmountable pressure the other way mere moments after being scored on.
It was a six-goal shellacking at the hands of Nashville in Game 2 that resulted in Crawford relinquishing his starting duties, but following Darling allowing four goals against on 28 shots in Game 5 and another three on 12 shots to begin Game 6, Crawford got the call to go back in. Over the next 49 minutes, Crawford turned aside all 13 shots he faced and Chicago drew even before winning Game 6 on a Duncan Keith blast late in the third frame.
Crawford's play thus far has left much to be desired, but two appearances do not define his play this season. He's been steady for the Blackhawks and the decision to go with him in Game 1 of the second-round series against the Minnesota Wild is the right one.
In the past three seasons, Crawford has won 28 playoff games. He knows how to win the post-season and that Quenneville is going with his number one netminder when the Blackhawks have a chance to advance to the Western Conference final for the third consecutive season means Quenneville knows what Crawford can do. Now, for the Blackhawks' sake, they're just hoping he does it.