The notion that on a team with nine Olympians goaltender Corey Crawford is the Blackhawks’ MVP is not a new one. Patrick Kane all but handed Crawford the Conn Smythe Trophy upon winning it after the Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013. And Crawford arguably was the biggest difference-maker as the Hawks scrambled to beat the Blues and Wild in the first two rounds of the playoffs last season.
So here we are again. The Hawks are struggling to score goals, giving up too many shots and still accumulating enough points to stay within striking distance of the Blues and Predators in the Central Division when they probably should be looking over their shoulder at the Wild.
And Crawford is most responsible for keeping them in that hunt. Crawford stopped 46-of-47 shots, plus three shootout opportunities in a 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night. He stopped 35-of-36 shots and made several huge saves in the third period to get the Hawks to overtime in a 1-0 loss to the Rangers on Sunday night. The Hawks scored one goal and picked up three points — no doubt who gets the credit for that.
“He’s been our best player of late,” forward Andrew Shaw said. “He’s keeping us in game that we haven’t deserved to be in. He’s making those big-time saves. We know he can. Most goalies wouldn’t be able to. But he always finds a way.”
With Patrick Kane out until late-May with a broken clavicle, the Hawks still expect to work their way out of their current offensive slump. Crawford gives them a chance to pick up points until that happens. In his last four games, Crawford has allowed four goals and stopped 128-of-132 shots (.970), plus 3-of-3 shootout opportunities against the Oilers. And that includes two meaningless goals allowed against the Carolina Hurricanes after the Hawks had built leads of 4-0 and 5-1 in the third period.
“I enjoy when games are close,” Crawford said. “I enjoy important games. Every game is meaningful, but when it gets down to the stretch or the playoffs, I enjoy those game where the crowd’s into it. That’s fun for me. I think all the guys in this room enjoy those games.”
Crawford isn’t in contention for regular-season honors. Even coach Joel Quenneville’s endorsement is muted: “There are some guys around that league that have had strong years goaltending wise — Crow’s one of them,” Quenneville said.
But make no mistake, Quenneville appreciates Crawford’s value to this team. Crawford is not the best goaltender in the NHL. He’s often in the bottom of the Top 10 in most rankings. But there are some goalies with more recognition who wish they had Crawford’s ability to respond to the moment. “[When] the game’s get bigger, he seems to rise to the occasion,” Quenneville said. “He’s had some big third periods for us. We need him.”
Crawford still has his ordinary moments — like when he mishandled an innocent dump-in against the Avalanche and two days later allowed four goals on 14 shots against the Bruins before being pulled in the second period. But he almost always responds. Since those two subpar games, he’s been the Hawks’ best player.
“I just go out and play,” Crawford said when asked about his ever-increasing value to the team. “Whether people think that or not, that’s up to them. I’ve got confidence in the guys in here and I’m pretty sure they have confidence in me.”
As often is the case, Crawford is most appreciated by his teammates.
“He’s focused. He’s competitive,” Shaw said. “In practice he’s probably the most competitive guy. He doesn’t let anybody score on him. He tries, even on every single rebound. I think that’s made him a better player.”
Scott Darling, the Hawks’ No. 2 goalie, has seen first-hand the intangibles that make Crawford so good when it counts.
“His competitive nature in games is second to none,” Darling said. “It’s not easy for guys who play 60-70 games a year to bring it like he does — that’s something you can’t teach. It’s a will-to-win kind of thing and he has it for sure.
“It’s inspiring to watch. I try to replicate it as best I can. There are tons of things I respect about his game and I try to watch and learn for myself because someday I’d like to have the success that he’s had.”
Crawford vs. Darling could eventually be an interesting dilemma for the Hawks as the salary cap crunch comes next season. But there’s no underestimating Crawford’s value. He’s where he is today because he learns well. And he’s still learning.
“I feel like I’m getting better,” Crawford said. “Experience is one of the biggest things. You learn so much as you go — being able to adjust to the way teams score, the way they attack. I find that’s one of the most important things … learning, being able to adjust to the game as it changes a little bit.
“I definitely feel like I’m better now than I was a few years ago. The stretch run or the run to the Cup [in 2013] was pretty good hockey. I’ve learned so much since then that I think I’ve rounded my game pretty good. I always want to get better.”