Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford in control after losing spot in 2010
BY MARK POTASH email@example.com May 31, 2013 9:28PM
Corey Crawford, Gustav Nyquist
Updated: July 2, 2013 8:11AM
Whether he knows it or not, this is Corey Crawford’s moment.
Arguably the Blackhawks’ best player through the first two rounds of the playoffs, Crawford finally has reached the point of the postseason where Antti Niemi went from being the right guy on the right team at the right time to a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate in 2010.
After allowing 17 goals in six games against the Vancouver Canucks in the second round, Niemi was the best goaltender in hockey in the Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks. He stopped 44 of 45 shots in Game 1, 44 of 46 in Game 3 and 129 of 136 overall against the fourth-best offense in the NHL in a Blackhawks sweep.
Crawford remembers it well — because it could have been him. He might have beaten out Niemi as the backup to Cristobal Huet that season had Niemi not been out of options; coach Joel Quenneville’s call was that close. Niemi made the team. Crawford went back to Rockford.
‘‘I probably went through every emotion I can go through,’’ Crawford said, reflecting on that fateful decision. ‘‘Growing up playing hockey and making it to the professional level and battling for four, five years and then thinking I had a really good chance — yeah, I was [ticked] off. I was upset. It’s never a good feeling when you believe you have a chance and get shut down.’’
As Niemi became a Stanley Cup champion, Crawford could only sit and wait. Was he thinking that could have been him?
‘‘That’s hard to say. I don’t really want to get into that because it’s a totally different situation,’’ he said. ‘‘So it’s not even something that I would think about.’’
But as we should know by now, Crawford’s resilience is not to be underestimated. He’s a soft-spoken guy who speaks his mind, listens to the question and will throw a premise he disagrees with right back in your face. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that after that disappointment in 2009-10, he got back on his feet, with a helping hand from the fickle finger of fate. When Niemi overplayed his free-agent hand in the offseason and ended up in San Jose, the Hawks happily turned to Crawford.
Whatever bitterness might have been lingering in Crawford’s mind was gone. All he had to do now was stop pucks. That’s what he does.
‘‘I went through a tough couple of weeks after I didn’t make the team,’’ he said of losing the backup job to Niemi. ‘‘But I got over it. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and kept working hard, and my goal was still to play in the NHL and eventually win the Stanley Cup. I played hard in the minor leagues and said if I keep playing hard and keep to it, I can make it one day.’’
The 28-year-old Crawford is halfway there. Through 12 postseason games, his 1.50 goals-against average and .938 save percentage rank third among playoff goaltenders. Of course, he’s the ‘‘other’’ goalie in this series, too — and rightfully so. The Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick, who won the Conn Smythe Award last season, is the playoff leader in save percentage (.948) and is second in goals-against average (1.50).
Crawford never has been in this kind of spotlight but doesn’t appear overwhelmed by the moment.
‘‘It’s going to be fun,’’ he said. ‘‘This is what it’s all about, moving on, getting closer to your dream. I don’t worry about [the pressure]. Do the same thing we’ve done all year. Now it’s just more attention. Crowd’s louder. More fun for us.’’