When one stops for a moment to ponder who the best, most elite goaltenders are in the NHL, who comes to mind?
The obvious and immediate answers are Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators. The one name that is always missing from this list?
For whatever reason, the 29-year-old Crawford, fresh off of a dazzling 2013 postseason in which he turned in a 1.84 goals against average and .932 save percentage to help the Hawks capture their second Cup in four years, is always passed over. Teammate Patrick Kane said in several interviews that Crawford deserved to win the Conn Smythe Trophy last season after Kane won the award.
The criticism of Crawford has always been astounding. Most of the vitriol comes from the 2012 first round series against the Phoenix Coyotes when Crawford let one-too-many overtime winners slip past him on what were very soft goals. His previous playoff series--the first round matchup against top-seeded Vancouver in 2011--was also a loss. However, the Blackhawks dropped that series in seven games after going down 3-0 and Crawford was largely the reason for the comeback in the first place.
But it is the continued vitriol that some fans, analysts and critics still harbor for Crawford that is truly baffling. Most of that talk normally goes away once the goaltender wins the Stanley Cup. It didn't. The criticism was not dispensed even after a legendary, drunken victory speech during the championship rally in Grant Park last June. (Warning: Video contains NSFW language.)
Why? The critique is always the same; his glove hand is too slow. He lets in too many soft goals. He's not mentally strong enough.
It begs the question if the critics are watching the same game as the rest of us.
Through the first two rounds of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is Crawford, not Lundqvist, Price, or Quick—all potential rivals going forward—who has once again been the top goalie in the postseason. Crawford's 1.97 GAA leads the league, as does his .931 save percentage, which is tied with Lundqvist.
In a series where the Blackhawks were thoroughly outplayed at points by the Minnesota Wild, Crawford was the star of the show and the biggest difference maker in Chicago's six-game series victory. The Blackhawks had no business winning the pivotal Game 6 and were fortunate to find themselves heading to overtime tied at 1-1.
Serenaded by a mocking crowd that failed to realize their chants of Craaawwwwwford, Craaawwwwwford were only making the netminder's resolve to win stronger, Crawford stopped shot after shot. His glove didn't seem to be an issue when he turned aside two Justin Fontaine shots in quick succession late in the second period.
As the game wore on Crawford only got stronger, turning in a 34-save performance and weathering the storm until Patrick Kane seized an opportunity off a weird board bounce to end the series. After suspect games in Minnesota in Games 3 and 4 of the series—much like he did against the St. Louis Blues in the first round—Crawford vowed to be better.
And he was.
With the series tied at 2-2 heading back to Chicago, Crawford turned aside 27 of the 28 shots he faced in Game 5 to help the Hawks to a 2-1 victory. He improved to 8-0 in playoff Game 5s in the process, in which his GAA sits at 1.13. Crawford is also 5-1 in playoff Game 6s. More importantly, Crawford has never lost a playoff series when it has been tied at 2-2 after four games. That streak is extended for stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, as well as head coach Joel Quenneville, back to the 2009 playoffs.
Those numbers are important because they tell a story the critics cannot dismiss. They also tell the story of how lethal Crawford and the Blackhawks have been in closeout situations. The East Coast bias will drum up the fact that Lundqvist is the king of Game 7 after knocking out the Penguins to improve to 5-1 in postseason Game 7s. The problem with that mentality is that the Blackhawks have a penchant for finishing teams on the road in Game 6. If you've forgotten, just ask the Wild, the Boston Bruins or the Philadelphia Flyers.
No, despite Crawford's overwhelming success he does not get the credit he deserves. If the Kings win Game 7 of their heated series with the Anaheim Ducks, it is Jonathan Quick who will be looked at as the superior goaltender heading into the Western Conference Finals. Everyone saw how that story turned out last postseason, complete with the Hollywood ending.
If the Ducks manage to win Game 7 at home, no doubt John Gibson will have a major say in it. The rookie is 2-1 in three playoff starts this postseason and has turned in an outstanding 1.69 GAA and .946 save percentage. The hype surrounding Gibson will continue to grow, as will the calls to put veteran Jonas Hiller back in net if Gibson fails early. Either storyline will likely overshadow Crawford's consistency, just like Quick's will if the Kings pull out the victory.
If the Hawks should advance to the Stanley Cup Final to defend their 2013 title, they will meet either Lundqvist or Carey Price, who's had a sensational year that has included a gold medal for Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Lundqvist, always the stalwart Vezina Trophy candidate, has been as good as Crawford this postseason and Price has only been slightly bested. Both will have massive amounts of media hype surrounding them as one is given the opportunity to lead his franchise to their first Cup win in some 20-odd years.
If it is Price, no doubt the pressure on him will be massive, as he will carry the legacy for the game's most touted team as they seek a 25th Stanley Cup. He will be Canada's favorite son playing for its favorite city.
But people forget that once upon a time last fall it was Crawford, not Price, who was being touted for that third and final goaltender spot for Team Canada along with Marc-Andre Fleury and Roberto Luongo. As it turned out, Price didn't get the competition after Crawford suffered a lowered body injury in December that forced Team Canada to withdraw him from consideration.
The injury caused more doubt and speculation on Crawford after it seemed like it would disappear for good following the 2013 postseason, but it lingered then and still lingers now around the league. It lingers everywhere except where it matters; in Chicago, with Corey Crawford.
The Blackhawks could have home ice advantage for the rest of the postseason if the Kings win Game 7 against the Ducks. They undoubtedly will be the home team in the Stanley Cup Finals if they win in the Western Conference Final regardless of their opponent. Chicago and Crawford are the only team left in the postseason with a perfect record at home; they are 6-0 this postseason at the United Center and 17-2 at home dating back to the start of the 2013 postseason.
Despite the team and personal accolades, the doubt and the lack of respect will continue to come for Crawford. He will continue to get passed over in the "elite" goaltender talks as the playoffs wear on and his competition becomes even stingier.
Always respectful in his interviews, he is soft spoken and reserved in his replies. The numbers, however, will continue to speak volumes loudly and clearly for themselves.
I'm sure he wouldn't want it any other way.