He may be playing with the most talented and productive team in the NHL, but the 'Hawks aren't going to fulfill any Stanley Cup expectations if they don't get consistent play from their goaltender.
Crawford came up big in the Blackhawks' first playoff game of the year against the Minnesota Wild. He made seven stops in the third period and seven more in overtime as the home team escaped with a 2-1 win over a gritty and shorthanded opponent.
The Blackhawks took the victory when Andrew Shaw made a big check on Minnesota's Torrey Mitchell deep in the Chicago zone. Defenseman Johnny Oduya picked up the loose puck and fired it off the glass to a streaking Viktor Stalberg.
The speedy forward was able to separate from the defense, and he threw a perfect pass to Bryan Bickell, who was skating hard up the middle. Bickell made one move to his backhand and drew Minnesota goalie Josh Harding out of the crease. Bickell sent the puck under Harding, and the Blackhawks had their overtime victory.
Crawford had saved Chicago from defeat just moments before Bickell scored the winner. After the Wild had brought the puck up the ice, Zach Parise found the puck on his stick alone in the slot. As he skated to his right, he fired a shot to his left.
The puck appeared ticketed for the far corner, but Crawford anticipated Parise's hard shot and extended his blocker, deflecting the shot to the corner.
The save was the turning point in the game and lifted a huge burden off of Crawford. In last year's first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, Crawford was victimized by three overtime goals. Two of those overtime goals could only be described as soft.
Crawford had a brilliant regular season with a 1.94 goals against average, but he had to be feeling the heat. His partner in goal, Ray Emery, is out with a lower-body injury. That meant Crawford had to come up with a winning performance or the pressure on him would only get heavier.
It was not a great start for Crawford. The Wild opened the scoring when they scored on their first shot of the game. Cal Clutterbuck took a pass on the left boards and let a harmless looking wrist shot go. It got by Crawford on the short side at the four-minute, 48-second mark of the first period.
It was just one goal and there was no panic, but it had to make Crawford break out in a cold sweat.
He was breathing easier when Marian Hossa tied the score on a power-play goal early in the second period, but it was his brilliant save on Parise that was the difference-maker.
Instead of getting beaten by an easy goal in overtime, he made a brilliant save on a vicious shot. What a difference a year makes. Crawford stopped 26 of the 27 shots he faced.
The Chicago win took some of the sheen off of Minnesota backup goalie Josh Harding's performance. Harding was forced into action when starting goalie Niklas Backstrom appeared to pull a leg muscle in warm-ups (per CBSSports.com) and had to be helped off the ice.
Harding had not started a game since Jan. 30. He was brilliant against the Blackhawks, stopping 35 of 37 shots.
Harding has nothing to feel badly about. He did all he could against the top team in the league on a night when he did not expect to play.
But it's clear that Crawford feels better. He earned a critical victory for his team, and the Blackhawks have taken what may be a very important first step in their chase for the Stanley Cup.
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