In good spirits after participating in the Blackhawks’ optional skate at Johnny’s IceHouse — ostensibly a workout for non-starters — Corey Crawford is being the good soldier. But he admits it’s a role he’s had to adjust to.
“I’m not going to lie —it was pretty frustrating at first,” he said of coach Joel Quenneville’s decision to bench him in favor of rookie Scott Darling for Game 3 of the Hawks first-round playoff series with the Predators.
“I want to be in the net and I want to play —always did and I always will. But that’s not my job right now. My job is to battle hard in practice, be positive in the room and encourage the guys. The only thing I can do now is be ready in case I have to go back in.”
The torturous part for Crawford is that he has no idea when that will be. Quenneville announced the expected decision that Darling will start in Game 4 against the Predators on Tuesday night at the United Center after the rookie from Lemont stopped 35-of-37 shots in the Hawks’ 4-2 victory in Game 3 on Sunday that gave them a 2-1 series lead.
Darling wasn’t as indomitable in Game 3 as he was in relief of Crawford in Game 1, when he stopped 42-of-42 shots — some in spectacular fashion —in a 4-3 double-overtime victory at Bridgestone Arena. But it’s Darling’s job to lose and he didn’t lose it in Game 3.
Quenneville called the decision to stick with Darling for Game 4 “an easy choice.”
Another solid game,” Quenneville said of Darling’s performance. “Real patient in the net. He was big, square. He handled the puck well. And guys played well in front of him.”
It’s a tough break for Crawford, who has struggled worse previously without getting pulled. But Quenneville was looking for a spark after Crawford allowed three goals in the first period in Game 1 and Darling was magnificent in relief. When Crawford allowed three late goals in a 6-2 loss in Game 2, Quenneville had little choice but to go with the hot goaltender.
Asked if understood that decision, Crawford said, “It really doesn’t matter. We’re up 2-1 in the series — that’s all that matters right now is the wins. Everything else doesn’t count.”
Crawford wasn’t saying that through gritted teeth. As competitive as he is, he has a fine appreciation for being on a contender with a chance to win it all. That he’s on the bench is an occupational hazard.
His job now is to keep that winning vibe going. “Encourage the guys, stay positive and make sure body language is good and everything is positive around here,” Crawford said. “There’s a nice feeling around the room and nothing negative. But I felt good [Monday] and it’s just a matter of waiting.”
Crawford has allowed nine goals on 38 shots in two games —a 6.75 goals-against average and an .809 save percentage. But it’s not like he forgot how to play the position.
“Obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Crawford said. “I said after Game 2 [that] I started feeling better in that game. They got some chances late that just squeaked through — some stuff obviously I made saves [on] throughout the year and those went by.
“But I’m starting to see the puck a little bit better. I didn’t get much time in Game 1 (20 minutes). I was kind of off a little bit. It was a good first shot [by Colin Wilson], another misplay [behind the boards, leaving an open net for Viktor Stalberg] and then I’m out of the game and I have to regroup and come back quick in Game 2. It kind of got away from me. Now, it’s more trying to see the puck and get that feeling back — working hard and getting that edge I had before.”
Besides being up 2-1 in the series, Crawford can take some solace in the notion that Darling won the job as much as he lost it. Darling has allowed two goals in two games and has a 0.94 goals-against average and .975 save percentage (77-of-79 shots). He’s happy for the rookie.
“For sure,” Crawford said. “Scott’s an awesome guy. He’s gone through a lot to get here and he’s been playing awesome. How can you not feel good for him?”
Though it might seem to be an awkward situation, with a Cup-winning goalie giving way to a rookie who was a backup in the minor leagues in 2013-14 and still in the minors in February. But the Crawford-Darling relationship remains the “same as it’s been all year,” Crawford said.
“We chat about their guys, stuff that happened during the game,” he said. “He’s been playing awesome. He’s been seeing the puck really well. He’s given our guys confidence, too. He’s done everything well. I just tell him to roll with it; keep going.”
Darling, of course, appreciates the help from Crawford —on and off the ice.
“He’s been great about it — credit to him,” Darling said. “He’s one of the best goalies in the world. It’s been an honor to be his goalie partner. He’s been supportive of me and that gives me a lot of confidence in my play.”
All Crawford can do now is wait for his next chance. It’s a challenge mentally as much as anything. But he’s better equipped to deal with this than he was earlier in his career.
“For sure,” Crawford said. “I’ve gone through a lot of things so far in my career, especially in our playoff run when we won [the Stanley Cup, in 2013]. There’s a lot that you have to go through mentally as a goalie in this league. It’s just another things that I think will only make me stronger going forward.”