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Is Corey Crawford elite? Hot Hawks goalie getting closer

Corey Crawford appears almost as comfortable facing a media scrum these days as he is on the ice — more tolerant of questions he’d rather ignore, questions that require some introspection and questions that have already been asked. When the Hawks media relations personnel cut off his post-game interview (“last question”) after several minutes following Sunday night’s 2-0 victory over the Blues, a relaxed Crawford actually looked ready for more.

It’s another illustration of just how far Crawford has come over the past several seasons as he has grown into the job of being the No. 1 goaltender on the premier team in the NHL. This isn’t the same guy who didn’t quite get all the media attention and bristled at pointed questions when he first became the team’s regular goalie in 2010-11 and 2011-12. And it isn’t the same guy who let one soft goal lead to another.

“Big difference. Big difference,” Crawford said after his NHL-best seventh shutout of the season. “Just confidence, experience — being able to read plays. To keep that mental level even and not get too down on myself or too complacent and think it’s going to be easy.

“I think maybe I just didn’t show it when I was a little bit younger. [But] there’s stuff that definitely bothered me and would drag on for days. Goals that would bother me during a game. Experience and being able to let that go and just play your hardest no matter what the situation — whether we’re up four or five goals or it’s a tight game and you give up a crappy one. Just try to have that same mentality and same drive.”

Maturity has made the difference for the 31-year-old Crawford, whose confidence seems to grow with each game. With 10 victories in his last 11 starts, Crawford’s save percentage of .932 is first in the NHL among goalies have have started at least half of his team’s games; his goals-against average of 2.08 ranks fifth.

Until he leads the Bad News Bears of hockey to the Stanley Cup, Crawford appears destined to be known as a guy in the right place at the right time — the over-paid beneficiary of a world-class defensive corps and excellent defensive forwards. He was beaten out for an All-Star team berth by the Predators’ more respected Pekka Rinne. At the time of the vote, Crawford was eighth in the NHL in goals-against average (2.22) and save percentage (.925). Rinne ranked 15th (2.43) and 26th (.908). As recently as last week, The Sporting News listed the worst contracts in the NHL team-by-team, and Crawford’s six-year, $36-million deal was “honorable mention” behind twice-demoted forward Bryan Bickell.

But shutouts seem to resonate a little more strongly with hockey experts, so with seven shutouts, Crawford could finally become a serious contender for the Vezina Trophy — which would be an accomplishment in itself for a guy who has nearly as many Stanley Cups (two) as Vezina Trophy votes (four) in his five full seasons as a starter.

Historically, Crawford has to be nearly perfect to gain recognition. He was named the NHL’s No. 1 star in December — after stopping 91-of-92 shots and posting two shutouts in three victories.

But on his own team, Crawford’s value is unquestioned.

“He’s been our best player the past few months,” Andrew Shaw said after Sunday’s game.

“It’s hard to put into words [how valuable Crawford is],” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “He seems to make all those big saves. … in the big moments that turn a game. It’s pretty awesome to watch. I’m just glad he’s on our side.”