By Larry Wigge
Cory Crawford sometimes looks like a clone of Yadier Molina -- he is out trying to stave off an attack, making save after save with every part of his body.
Such was the case January 14, when he stopped his 39 saves led the Chicago Blackhawks to a 2-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
"Corey was spectacular tonight," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.
The 6-2, 216-pounder returned to Montreal, where he is a native of
the suburb of Chateauguay, Quebec. To say he owns the Habs -- having gone 4-0-2 with a 1.32 goals-against-average, a .958 save percentage and one shutout in six games against the team he idolized growing up.
"It'll never get old," Crawford said about playing in front of some 20-25 family and friends. "It's always fun. I used to come here with my buddies to watch games. Now having family and friends come to watch me play here now is pretty special, and that'll never change."
He made four straight saves in a nine-second flurry of shots in the second period to protect the Blackhawks' second one-goal lead, including three in a row on Tomas Fleischmann at the top of his goal crease before making a glove save on Paul Byron at 8:30.
"He made a great save," Byron said. "He's a Cup-winning goalie. He does the job when the game's on the line and he steps up in big times ... and that was a big save for their team."
Crawford grew up idolizing Patrick Roy. Many of the flopping saves on this night were Roy-like.
"I used to come watch games here ... and it’s still kind of surreal to step on the ice and actually play a game out there," Crawford said. "I don’t think that'll change any time soon."
"The biggest difference we see in him and his growth as a player is not his high-end play, when he plays really well, it's just how often he does it," captain Jonathan Toews said. "He has found a way to be consistent and bring that high level of play as often as he has this year, pretty much every night."
And that has translated to two Stanley Cups for the Blackhawks in the last three years.
When he took over for Anti Niemi in 2011-12, things were a little different for Crawford.
"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."
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 being the Boston Bruins for the second Cup. "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.
The Montreal 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."
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, Corey Crawford stands tall for the Blackhawks.