Crawford giving Hawks a shot to repeat

CHICAGO -- Corey Crawford wasn't a proven winner the last time the Chicago Blackhawks had a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Crawford was in his first full season as the team's starting goaltender when the Blackhawks attempted to repeat as champions in 2011. He wasn't the main reason why the Blackhawks were eliminated in the first round then, but he also wasn't a difference-maker when his teammates needed him to be.

Now as the Blackhawks take another run at repeating as champions this season, Crawford is no longer an unknown variable. The Blackhawks know exactly what they have in him. He's a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender who has continued to verify this season that he can be relied upon to step up in the playoffs.

"I think the one thing [before was] the scrutiny for Corey," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Friday. "[He hadn't] done it before. ... Here we are, the difference is we got a proven goalie that has won a Cup."

Plenty of people doubted whether the Blackhawks could win a Stanley Cup with Crawford in net prior to last season. He showed them otherwise by playing consistently, and often times at an elite level, while the Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup last season. He had a 1.84 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 23 playoff games.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman saw all he needed to believe Crawford could lead the Blackhawks to even more Stanley Cups. Bowman offered Crawford a six-year contract extension, which he signed in September 2013, making him part of the Blackhawks' core group through the 2019-20 season.

Crawford hasn't disappointed since. Through two playoff series this season, he's continued to play at a high level and given the Blackhawks a chance to win in most games.

Crawford has a 1.97 goals-against average and .931 save percentage through 12 games and two series. Since making himself accountable after allowing four goals in each of the first two games against the St. Louis Blues in the first round, Crawford has allowed 18 goals over the last 10 games and stopped 276-of-294 shots for a .939 save percentage.

Crawford has especially emerged when the Blackhawks have been able to clinch a series. He had 35 saves on 36 shots in a 5-1 series-clinching win over the Blues in Game 6, and he had 34 saves on 35 shots in a 2-1 series-clinching, overtime victory over the Minnesota Wild in Game 6 of the second round. He had a .936 save percentage in games where the Blackhawks could clinch a series last season.

"Just seems like his job has gotten tougher and tougher over the last few years," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "Even him being a huge part of our Stanley Cup winning team last year, it doesn't seem like it's getting easier for him. But he keeps rising to challenges, picking his game up and improving in so many ways, especially mentally, to be able to handle that pressure. I feel like after every game I'm answering questions about him and I joke I'm running out of things to say. But that pretty much sums it up right there with the way he's matured as a player."

Crawford isn't often included in the discussion about top-tier goaltenders, and that has a lot to do with a .914 career regular-season save percentage. Even this past regular season, his .917 regular-save percentage would fall short of the likes of Tuukka Rask (.930), Semyon Varlamov (.927) and Carey Price (.927).

But Crawford has been a different goaltender in the playoffs the past two seasons. He has stopped 979-of-1051 shots for a .931 save percentage in 35 playoff games the past two seasons. They're numbers that put him right up there with the elite goaltenders. By comparison in the past two seasons in the playoffs, Rusk has had a .936 save percentage in 34 games, Jonathan Quick has had a .925 save percentage in 31 games and Henrik Lundqvist has had .933 save percentage in 26 games.

Crawford accounts for that higher level of success to what's at stake in the playoffs.

"I mean it's fun playing in the NHL, period," Crawford said. "When we get to the playoffs, it's a little more incentive, I guess. Our crowd is louder. There's more on the line. I think everyone in our locker room enjoys it much more when we get to the playoffs."

Quenneville also acknowledged the pressure grows on a goaltender in the playoffs. Each goal is put under a microscope, and Crawford endured some of that when the Blackhawks were eliminated in the first round in 2011 and 2012.

Unlike then, though, the Blackhawks have a lot more faith Crawford won't let them down.

"You always know the focus on goaltenders is scrutinized to a different level and intention always seems to be primarily on the goaltender and 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," Quenneville said. "I think [for] Corey, the bigger the game, the bigger the challenge, he seems to rise to that occasion. Kind of like a lot of our top guys.

"I think when you get good goaltending in the playoffs and you expect it, it really helps your team, and the confidence that the goalie portrays seems to extend right through your team and right through your defense to your forwards."

By that measurement, the Blackhawks' confidence is in a good place as they head into the Western Conference finals and keep alive their hope of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.