By Larry Wigge
Each save is an important one. Every save is crucial for Corey Crawford and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The playoffs are unlike no other marathon. You must get 16 wins -- by hook or by crook. And when that has been achieved ...
Said Crawford, "Make the next save and our we'll score on the next shot ... Constant repeat of that. Repeated that over and over and over."
That's the life of a goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs ... And in the end, you wrap your arms around the Stanley Cup.
It's been an up-and-down four years for Corey Crawford. A journey. When Chicago won the Cup in 2010, Anti Niemi was in goal and Crawford was in the stands as the team's third-stringer.
For Crawford obviously the goaltender gets the flak if a team comes up short, so for him and everything that he worked through to get to this point, what does this mean for him?
"We're happy for him," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "The scrutiny that he was under at the end of last year going into the season, if he was capable of getting through the regular season, let alone the playoffs ..."
The coach wanted to this his next statement right, because after giving up several soft goals in the Phoenix series in the first round of the playoff, Crawford and Blackhawks goaltending coach Stephane Waite watched hours of film of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist to get it right.
"His preparation going into the year was in the right place," Quenneville continued. "I thought his consistency was great. I got a question the other day which kind of was surprising: "Who's going to play your next game?' It was obvious who's playing our next game because he was the reason we were playing the next game. It was that type
of year for him ... and I'm very happy for him."
Crawford's playoff record was nearly identical to the regular season. In the regular season, he a 19-5-5, with a .926 save percentage and a goals-against average of 1.94. In the playoffs, he had 16-7 record, with a .932 save percentage and a 1.84 goal-against average. He led the league with 16 wins and 1.84 GAA.
The biggest scrutiny of the Finals was Boston was scoring, when a thorough dissection of his glove side followed the Hawks' 6-5 victory in Game 4, when all of the Bruins' goals were aimed that way.
"I didn't listen to anybody," Crawford said. "What mattered was the guys in the room. Everyone was behind each other. We worked hard for each other all year, and I'm so proud of everyone in that room."
"Things were different this year ... and it was hard for him at times," said Sylvia Crawford, Corey mother. "But the way he finished, the way this team finished? It's just like magic. It's a magical ending."
Said Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya: "Corey's the guy that got us here. Everybody that doubted him? Well, he shoved it back to them."
It's a strange thing about goaltenders. Most of them ... anyway.
Goalies hide behind masks. They often face shots that often come at them at 100 mph. But most of them forget who there are playing ... it the opposing team's goalie.
"Yeah, it's competitive," said Crawford before facing Tuukka Rask and the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals. "You want to beat the other guy on the other side. My focus is more on their players, what they're doing ... but yeah, I definitely want to beat him."
Goalkeepers usually hide that last fact, saying they have no control over the other teams last line of defense. In truth, Crawford wants to be more competitive in goal than Rask in this best-of-seven series that began with the Blackhawks winning a triple overtime decision, 4-3, in Game 1.
Crawford was the victor, making 29 of his 51 saves -- including 52:08 of overtime that seemed to last an eternity and made it feel like two separate games.
The Montreal, Quebec, native, could be forgiven. He is not like most puckstoppers. In fact, Crawford had designs on scoring goals rather than stopping them at an early age.
"I changed when I was about 8 years old," Crawford recalled. "I was a forward before. I thought I was pretty good."
So the question begs, what happened when Crawford was 8 that made him don the mask?
"Patrick Roy is pretty much the reason why I wanted to be a goalie," Crawford said of the Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. "He was the man back in the day. I wanted to be like him."
So, Trevor and Sylvia, Crawford's parents, had a dilemma on their hands.
"I remember him watching Patrick Roy. We had this tape of the playoffs and he'd watch it over, over and over again," said Crawford's mother. "I knew he had a fascination. He'd watch it two, three times in a row."
Studying Roy was all the craze in Montreal at the time. He had just led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Finals over Los Angeles in 1993, his second Cup title with the Habs.
Crawford's father, Trevor, wasn't thrilled by his son's new obsession.
"There is so much pressure on them," Trevor said. "They seem to be a scapegoat when things don't go well. I wasn't too keen on it at first. He was such a good forward ... But playing goalie is something he wanted to do."
Crawford, a classic late bloomer, hasn't been in the conversation as the best at his position until now. He was a second-round choice, 52nd overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Five seasons in the minor league are the qualifications that bring him to this season.
"Nothing, man," he replied when asked what elite teams he's played on in the past. "Other than regular-season junior hockey, AHL, NHL, other than that, there's not much."
"I think a number of top goalies, after a strong rookie season, seem to have an ordinary year the next year," Quenneville said. "Different challenges. Corey, with the expectations this year, came in with the right attitude. I loved the consistency of his approach. In net, game in, game out, the predictability has been in place.
"It's a different animal having the number one job, expectations changed. He had to answer a lot of questions this year going into the season. What about our goaltending? We said we're very comfortable with Corey.
"He always has been kind of together ... and always has been square. I think he has developed more each and every year. He's a good student of the game."
Crawford has evolved from being a guy characterized as a shot blocker and very technical to a more athletic goaltender under Waite, with whom he has worked since he was 15 and first attended Waite's goalie school in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
"I've been plugged into that boxy, shot blocker status," Crawford said. "That's what I've based my game off of. I've learned you have to battle and make those other saves, too. You can't just give up on plays. Players are too good and can make plays on you. You have to be able to read and react and be desperate at times."
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews calls Crawford Chicago's MVP, even before this playoff run.
"If they didn't really before, I think everyone knows who Corey Crawford is now," Toews said. "The influence and the effect he's had on our team all season and through this Cup run that we’ve had. He's proven he's a pressure player. He's got the talent and the ability and the mental game to go with it."
He's doing what Niemi did three years ago -- giving the Blackhawks a chance.
"We felt he was capable of being an elite goalie, a top goalie," said Quenneville. "This year, he was ready to go. The consistency of his game was in place. 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."
Since then, however, the goaltender pendulum has swung the other way.
"Can't even put that into words," Toews said after the overtime heroics. "He made some unbelievable saves. I can't remember if it was still in regulation time or not.
"Anyways, you know you're going to need some big stops. One went off the posts there. A couple times we gave up a few too many chances off the rush. He was there every single time.
"We needed Crowe to make those stops to keep the game going."
Game after game, save after save. Only Corey Crawford stands tall for the Blackhawks.