Monday, April 4, 2011Posted: 3:21 p.m. Updated: 6:05 p.m.
By Tracey Myers
Corey Crawford had his epiphany in New York City.
It didnt matter that the Chicago Blackhawks goaltender wasnt the starting guy for that Nov. 1 game. After so much work, so many auditions with the Blackhawks in trying to secure a goalie spot, the Montreal, Quebec native had nevertheless arrived.
I was at Madison Square Garden, I had made it in the NHL and I was there, Crawford remembered. I was finally part of the team.
Hes more than that now. In one season, Crawford has gone from a guy finally getting on the roster to being the Blackhawks No. 1 goaltender, and his true NHL arrival may come Tuesday night when he makes his 24th consecutive start against his hometown Montreal Canadiens.
Crawfords work has earned the Blackhawks plenty of victories this season. Its also earning him strong consideration for the Calder Trophy for NHL rookie honors.
Hes probably the best surprise that the Hawks have had this year. This kid knows how to win, said former Blackhawks coach Denis Savard. Certainly (goaltender) is the position thats the most important in hockey and hes earned chance to get (Calder) votes, no doubt.
The numbers are strong: Crawford has 31 victories, including an eight-game winning streak in late Februaryearly March, four shutouts, a .2.27 goals-against average (seventh in the NHL) and a .919 save percentage (16th).
Hes done well in all situations and all types of games and when we need big saves, he's there for us, Troy Brouwer said. I know goalie progression is slower than other positions sometimes, but its good to see hes finally earned his way here.
Coach Joel Quenneville said Crawfords also handled the workload well.
The toughest part for goalies when youre playing consecutive games and youre basically going all the time is trying to find a mental break and prepare for each game in the right fashion. Fatigue can sometimes be the challenging part, especially in your first go-around, he said. Hes doing everything right. Hes keeping himself fresh going into games.
Fresh, yes, but Crawford may also be feeling some butterflies when he takes the ice at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. Hes the hometown boy who made good, and he told Blackhawks TV recently that returning will be exciting.
Itll be pretty special, he said. I was a huge Canadiens fan growing up and Ive been there a lot of times to watch games. I dont have the words to mention how special it is to be going back and playing a game there.
Crawford was like a lot of kids growing up in the Montreal area: he considered CanadiensAvalanche goaltending legend Patrick Roy a hockey god. He switched to goaltender after watching the Roy during his youth, although his reasons for adoring Roy had little to do with specifics of Roys game.
I think I was too young to realize that. I liked his pads, Crawford said with a laugh. And he was really good.
Obviously Crawford didnt ride the Roy-like rocket to goaltending stardom Roy won the Canadiens starting job and his first Stanley Cup at the age of 20. His path was a little longer, and he put in plenty of work along the way.
Crawfords 6-foot-2 height was an asset in taking up the net but other aspects needed work. Puck handling was one, and his former Rockford coaches said its evident that Crawford has improved on that over the years. Savard saw another issue when he watched Crawford in prospect camp not long after he was drafted.
I remember him making the first save all the time but hed struggle with the rebounds, Savard said. They were there. If theres one thing hes improved on, its in that department. He smothers the puck pretty good right now, not many rebounds.
Crawford thought he finally cracked the lineup entering the 2009-10 season. But after a tight competition between he and Antti Niemi, the Blackhawks went with the latter. An understandably frustrated Crawford headed back to Rockford.
It sucked, he said. It was a pretty crappy feeling once again to be shot down and have to go back to the minors and do that again: the rough travel, not the greatest spots to be playing hockey sometimes, the small crowds. But I just threw away all those thoughts and kept working hard and hoped for another chance.
Crawford buried his emotions once he hit the ice for Rockford. Crawford won 24 games and sported a .909 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against average for the IceHogs last season.
Blackhawks developmental goaltending coach Wade Flaherty said he and Crawford talked when he got back to Rockford last fall.
We had a pretty good discussion and he came in and really was impressive as far as his work ethic, said Flaherty, who shared the Rockford net with Crawford in the 2007-08 season. It wouldve been very easy for him to say, Hey, it didnt work out. I deserved better. But he didnt. I was proud how he responded to the situation.
Rockford coach Bill Peters concurred.
He was excellent, Peters said. He was frustrated a little bit. He was like Corey Schneider. They were both good goaltenders, both behind proven guys. He was ripe on the vine. Others hadnt seen him in pressure situations. He stole games for me here.
Crawfords done that a few times for the Blackhawks this season, too. His calm demeanor is the same in net as it is in the locker room. Crawfords been big, hes been reliable. And while hes among some impressive Calder candidates this season, Carolinas Jeff Skinner and San Joses Logan Couture among them, Crawfords earned consideration at a little personal hardware.
I think hes ahead of that group, Peters said. I really like (Skinner and Couture), but if you had to pick a most valuable position, a position you need covered, its in the net. I dont think theres any more of a valuable player than the guy in Chicago right now.
Tracey Myers is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow Tracey on Twitter @TramyersCSN for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.