Crawford stepping up in more ways than one
On the eve of their playoff opener against St. Louis, I asked defenseman Duncan Keith if it bothered him at all that goaltender Corey Crawford, arguably the playoff MVP on last year's Stanley Cup champs, still seemed underappreciated by so many.
Keith wasn't having any of that talk. At all.
"He's not underappreciated in the room," Keith said. "We appreciate everything Corey does for this team. He's a huge part of our team.
"Not underappreciated here."
That appreciation level absolutely skyrocketed after the Blackhawks dropped their first two games to the Blues and up stepped Crawford to publicly shoulder the blame.
Then he went out and put the team on his shoulders, and 4 straight wins later, the Hawks were on their way to a showdown against Minnesota.
"That's what a leader does, he's not afraid to take the blame and take the criticism and the negative attention, and he pulls through," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said after the series-clinching win over the Blues. "Your teammates respond to play and behavior like that.
"Pretty amazing job by him."
And Crawford wasn't about to slow down. He capped a stellar series against the Wild by stopping 34 of 35 shots in a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6 to propel the Hawks back into a Western Conference finals rematch against Los Angeles. Game 1 is today at the United Center.
And once again, as is the norm in playoff hockey, the focus heading into this series is squarely on Crawford and his Kings' counterpart, Jonathan Quick.
"You always know the goaltenders are scrutinized to a different level," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "The way they influence the game and the importance of that position to winning and losing is always going to be critical to your success.
"I think with Corey, the bigger the game, the bigger the challenge, the more he seems to rise to that occasion."
And the numbers this postseason back that up. Crawford's 1.97 goals-allowed-per-game average leads all goaltenders, and his .931 save percentage has him tied him for the top spot with the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist.
"Huge part of our win last year and he's been a huge part of our team this year," Toews said. "Everyone knows that you can have all the forwards and D-men in the world that play great hockey, but you won't win playoff hockey if you don't have a great goaltender. And obviously we have that."
The Kings have a pretty good one of their own in Quick, who, after a rocky start, has allowed just 20 goals in his last 11 games.
"Jonathan Quick, what can I say about the guy? He's pretty amazing," Quenneville said.
While the Hawks had a few days rest to prepare for Game 1, Quick and the Kings topped the Ducks in Game 7 late Friday, practiced Saturday morning and then flew into town Saturday evening.
But they were feeling no pain.
"We got a little extra energy after that win," Jarret Stoll said. "The boys came in (Saturday) morning, the tunes were going -- it was a happy room."
And one full of players looking to exact a little revenge after the Hawks ousted them from the playoffs last year in the conference finals.
"We're preparing for a Game 1 win," Stoll declared. "They're the defending champs and we want to take it back."
To do that they'll have to get past Crawford first, who simply won't be bothered with all that appreciated/underappreciated stuff.
"We're a team, so really for me it's just talk," Crawford said. "I just stay back there and try and stop pucks."