There is an elusive quality to Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, and it's mostly because people don't know what to make of the 28-year-old from Montreal. Goaltending, as a position, invites hyperbole. Either your netminder is the second coming of Georges Vézina, or he can't stop a beach ball. Rarely is there room for any middle ground, for a solid, steady consistent performer who merely gives his team a chance to win every night.
Luckily for Crawford, he plays for a team that understands the value of steady as she goes. He was in the Blackhawks organization in 2009-10 when they last won a Stanley Cup championship, a season that began with Cristobal Huet as the team's starter in goal and the backup job up for grabs between Crawford and Antti Niemi.
It eventually went to Niemi, who then took the starting job away from Huet and gave the Blackhawks good-enough goaltending to win the title. That was a pivotal story line in the 2010 playoffs when the other finalist, the Philadelphia Flyers, cobbled together a goaltending tandem between Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher and got to within two victories of a championship.
Since then, however, the goaltender pendulum has swung the other way. In the past two seasons, the goaltender for the team that won the Stanley Cup (Tim Thomas on the Boston Bruins, Jonathan Quick on the Los Angeles Kings) also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
This season, on paper, Quick represented one area in which L.A. had an edge for the NHL's Western Conference final, but after four games, Chicago holds a 3-1 series lead and has a chance to clinch on home ice Saturday night. Crawford has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of his past eight starts, and leads the playoffs with a 1.72 goals-against average, while ranking third with a .936 save percentage. These are credible numbers for a player former NHL goaltender Darren Pang describes as "a guy who is business every day."
"He's a very even-keeled person," Pang says, "whether it's going well or not going well, and in his sophomore year, it didn't go well for him. I mean, he really struggled. And I tried to explain to people – and I've had a conversation with him – that that second year is the toughest year. It's about keeping your head above water to get another chance in your third year."
The Blackhawks were a first-round casualty last spring during Crawford's sophomore slump, and although his playoff numbers weren't bad, he gave up too many goals in overtime with the game on the line in the loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. But this year, splitting time with Ray Emery, the Blackhawks' tandem won the William M. Jennings Trophy for the lowest collective goals-against average in the league, and Crawford sliced his own GAA by almost a goal a game (2.72 to 1.91).
As the season moved along, no one knew exactly who Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville might turn to as his playoff starter. The decision became moot when Emery was injured down the stretch and Crawford became the default choice. And although he's had a few uneven moments in these playoffs – giving up a goal on a soft shot that beat him glove side in an elimination game against the Detroit Red Wings – Crawford has done a good job of putting those occasional bad moments behind him.
He's doing what Niemi did three years ago – giving the Blackhawks a chance.
"Look at the history of goaltenders," Quenneville said prior to the start of the series against the Kings. "They come on their rookie year, they might have real good starts to their careers … and their next year is a little challenging. You get that job of being the No. 1 goaltender, expectations become different. Teams are ready.
"We felt he was capable of being an elite goalie, a top goalie. This year, he was ready to go. The consistency of his game was in place. That really was the key to our season – the goaltending, the tandem that we had.
"He did what he had to do all year long and didn't change his approach whether there was a couple of goals go in. He hasn't had any games all year where we were disappointed with his contribution."
Crawford grew up idolizing Patrick Roy and is the last Canadian-born starting goaltender still in the NHL playoffs. Once upon a time, Canada produced most of the world's top goaltending talent, and for a while, most of it came out of Quebec. Crawford is probably the last one from the Quebec goaltending boom that was originally inspired by Roy and Martin Brodeur.
The world caught up, and nowadays some countries – such as the United States and Finland – have a comparative wealth of goaltending options. While Crawford's focus is on the Stanley Cup playoffs, eventually Canada's Olympic brain trust is going to have to decide whether he is a viable candidate for the 2014 Olympic team. Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Canadian Olympic team, will have some tough choices to make. On the basis of his stats, Crawford has probably at least played himself into an invite to the Olympic camp, tentatively set for the end of August in Calgary. If he had a Stanley Cup championship on his résumé, that might enhance his credentials.
"It's hard to explain [the Quebec goalie boom]," says Crawford, who was chosen in the second round of the 2003 entry draft and spent four years playing for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before apprenticing a further five years in the Blackhawks' minor-league system until he got his shot in 2010-11 as part of a tandem with Marty Turco.
"There are a lot of talented guys throughout the world right now, so to have goalies just from one province of one country, maybe it's just a coincidence."
So Crawford doesn't see it as the ebbing of the Patrick Roy factor?
"It's more that he was the man back in the day," Crawford says. "As far as his game and learning anything from him, at that age, you don't really know much, you're still learning a lot. It was more just idolizing the guy, the great goaltender that played for the Habs."
Blackhawks defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson grew up with Crawford in the Blackhawks' organization, from their time together in Rockford (AHL) until they broke into the NHL full-time.
"I think the biggest difference that I've seen [with Crawford] is just his focus," Hjalmarsson says. "He's been unbelievably focused this year. The way he's been playing for us this year, he's giving the D men and whole team a lot of confidence. He's just been solid game after game, and especially in the playoffs here, he's stepped up his game even more."
Pang, an analyst for the NBC Sports Network in this series, believes that the strength of Crawford's game is his efficiency in the crease. Of the two goaltenders in this series, Quick is the more athletic and can play a more aggressive style and cover more ground quickly, moving from side to side in the crease.
"If you're going to beat Corey, you have to get him to open up," Pang says. "In the past, it looked like he thought he had to make the splits to get post to post. But you don't have to. The net is only six feet by four feet.
"When you look at Corey, you think, 'What area can I beat him in?' Well, he's got long legs, so he'll open them up. But now he seems really tight in that area. He's not overmoving. There's more shuffle movement, more just push-across movement. He's letting the puck come to him instead of fighting the puck. I didn't think he'd ever sprinkle in a few superlative saves, but now he's doing that too. That's just a sign of great confidence."