With the Stanley Cup final complete, the first-round of the post-season seems like the distant past. Exactly two months before the Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in the past three seasons, netminder Corey Crawford, the 2012-13 Cup winning goaltender, was getting pulled after allowing three goals on 12 shots and questions emerged regarding whether he could get his crease back.
That’s been the story of Crawford’s career, though. After Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010, then-goaltender Antti Niemi was let go due to the Blackhawks’ salary cap troubles and Crawford, along with veteran Marty Turco, took over between the pipes.
Crawford had a mediocre first two seasons as a professional and Chicago exited the post-season in the first round in back-to-back campaigns. Some believed the Blackhawks should go searching for a new goaltender and that Crawford wasn’t the man to get the job done. Then, 2012-13 happened.
In the lockout-shortened campaign, Crawford played the best hockey of his professional career as the Blackhawks went on a remarkable 24-game points streak. By the time the 2012-13 season ended, Crawford went 19-5-5 and posted three shutouts with a 1.94 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. The latter two numbers are career bests that stand to this day.
Chicago would go on to win the Stanley Cup in 2012-13, defeating the Boston Bruins in six games. But many still saw Crawford as simply a beneficiary of circumstance: he was the Blackhawks’ goaltender behind a roster that even the most pedestrian of netminders could have won with. Since then, and even before, that has continued to be the perception of Crawford. Some believe him to be a mediocre goaltender at best, one that would be little more than average on any other team. As such, GM Stan Bowman was criticized harshly for signing Crawford to a six-year, $36 million contract following the 2012-13 Cup victory.
In a salary cap era, that deal might look terrible in retrospect, but considering the goaltender Crawford just beat, one who he posted better regular season totals than in Ben Bishop, makes only $50,000 less, it’s far from the worst for a goaltender who has consistently found a way to win. Goaltenders in Crawford’s price range also include Kari Lehtonen, Jonathan Quick, Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward.
In the regular season, of the 47 goaltenders who played at least 1,000 minutes, Crawford ranked ninth in even-strength SP with a .932 mark. He finished ahead of goaltenders such as Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, Frederik Andersen, Quick and Niemi. He barely finished behind the likes of Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider and Pekka Rinne. At all strengths, Crawford’s GAA was 2.27, good enough for 11th in the league.
But, two years later, with two Western Conference finals and another Stanley Cup under his belt, can the perception of Crawford change? Simply put, if it isn’t or hasn’t, it should be.
Some will point to the Blackhawks being so sound defensively, though, that Crawford doesn’t have to be that good even when he is tested. However, the running story about Chicago all season – as the season began, pre-trade deadline, post-deadline and especially in the playoffs – was their lack of defensive depth. This season, in 57 games, Crawford was tested more than he has been in his entire career by more than 115 shots. That’s an average of two extra shots per game.
And if Crawford wasn’t a sound goaltender this season or wasn’t key to Chicago’s success, the fact the Blackhawks allowed the 24th most shots against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play would have come back to haunt them much more often.
No one will claim Crawford to be as technically sound as the Monreal Canadiens’ Carey Price or expect Crawford to be a perennial Vezina Trophy contender like Lundqvist. But to call him the Blackhawks’ Achilles heel, especially following a season like the one he just had, would be unjust and to discredit his entire season.
Sure, backup Scott Darling came in to save the day against the Nashville Predators in round one. And sure, Darling’s numbers, including his .948 SP at 5-on-5 during the more than 660 regular season minutes, look great. But with Darling in goal, the Blackhawks allowed more than two goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. With Crawford, Chicago allowed 1.55.
When it comes to success, though, it’s hard to deny what Crawford has done. He’s not just an average goaltender – he’s one of the top 10 in the league.
Crawford now has three Western Conference finals appearances with two victories and a seventh-game overtime loss. He has two Stanley Cup finals under his belt and he’s been the victor in six games in both series. In arguably the most important game of his career, he posted a shutout to give clinch Chicago, and himself, their second Stanley Cup in three years. The Blackhawks aren’t winning in spite of Crawford, they’re winning with him. The sooner he gets some praise, the better.