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Goalie Corey Crawford enters camp as Hawks’ starter for first time

This seasCorey Crawford (50) gets watch goalie competitifor backup job between Ray Emery Alexander Salak. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

This season, Corey Crawford (50) gets to watch a goalie competition, for the backup job between Ray Emery and Alexander Salak. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 10, 2011 11:56AM

Gone are the nerves of not knowing his future. And gone is the immense pressure of having to shine in every practice and exhibition game.

This preseason, Corey Crawford is all smiles as the Blackhawks’ No. 1 goalie with a new contract in hand.

“Yeah, there’s a different feeling,” Crawford said Friday at the United Center. “It’s nice to know you have a three-year deal coming into camp. Still, at the same time, I’m so focused to earn that ice time. I think you have to show you’re the guy.”

This year, Crawford gets to watch one of the biggest battles at training camp instead of being in one. The showdown for the backup goalie job between veteran Ray Emery and rookie Alexander Salak figures to get plenty of attention.

With Emery on a tryout offer, the circumstances are a bit different than when Crawford and Antti Niemi went save-for-save for the spot behind Cristobal Huet two seasons ago.

“Emery, obviously I played against him a little bit,” Crawford said. “I watched him when I was younger playing in the league in ­Ottawa and a little bit in Philly. He’s a good goaltender. He’s proven himself before in the league.

“Salak, I haven’t seen him play at all, but I’ve heard a lot of things. They’re two great guys off the ice. I’ve gotten to meet them and talk to them a little. I think they’re two guys who can help me push myself. That’s a good thing to have.”

The difficulties Emery faced as he came back from surgery for a debilitating hip disease isn’t lost on Crawford, either.

“There’s some spots that hurt more than others to try and come back from,” Crawford said. “Ray looks good right now, and I think he’s fully recovered. It takes a lot to overcome that and get back into game shape.”

Coach Joel Quenneville said Crawford might get three full games this preseason while the rest of the time would be shared. In the regular season, Quenneville wants Crawford to play in “the mid-50s” in terms of games.

“That would be a healthy dose for him,” Quenneville said. “I don’t expect or envision to ever do what we did last year, playing the number of games he did in a row. But you have to compliment him for how he handled the intensity and significance of those games, none better than in Game 7 [against the Vancouver Canucks in the first round].”

Crawford brushed off concerns of a potential sophomore slump. An encouraging sign is that Crawford continues to display maturity.

The 26-year-old isn’t satisfied with earning a three-year, $8 million deal and a home in the NHL after years of toiling in the American Hockey League. He became a legitimate rookie of the year candidate last season for stabilizing the Hawks’ net with a 33-18-6 record and 2.30 goals-against average.

“I’ve got to be a little quicker,” Crawford said of what goalie coach Stephane Waite wanted him to work on this summer. “Strength was there last year. Obviously, you want to improve everything, but quickness was one of the things we talked about. I think that’s just going to improve my game.

“I felt I was a good puck-handler in the minors, but I just felt I didn’t need to do it much. Our D-core is good with the pucks. I thought I could just give it to them and let them do their thing. But quickness was No. 1 on the list.

“I want to get better every year, and that’s my goal.”

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