It happened in 2013, when Crawford began to get noticed while helping the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. It occurred again in 2014, when he assisted them to the Western Conference finals. It will likely repeat itself in 2015, while he plays a role in wherever the Blackhawks end up in the playoffs.
Crawford's flying under the radar in Chicago at other times of the year should be no surprise. It’s difficult to stand out when your teammates include two of the faces of the NHL in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and other established veterans such as Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Crawford’s jerseys are bought at the United Center; others are just purchased more often.
Crawford might never be the most popular player in the building. He might not be as recognized as the likes of Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask. But when judged solely on performance, Crawford is putting together a career year and has arguably been one of the most consistent goaltenders in the NHL this season.
Crawford’s value is never lost on the Blackhawks.
“Corey’s had a good year,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville recently said. “We all know the importance of goaltending and what it means to your team, and the success of your team starts with the goaltender. It gives your team confidence from big saves, timely saves. He’s been vital in getting us some big points this year, extending games into overtime, which a lot of nights could turn into two for us. There are some guys around the league that had some strong years goaltending-wise. Crow’s one of them.”
One of the statistics born with the rise of advanced stats in hockey has been quality starts for goaltenders. Just as it’s used in baseball to measure a pitcher’s performance, the statistic is utilized in hockey to gauge a goaltender’s consistency, regardless of his team.
A quality start is defined as when a goaltender records a minimum .917 save percentage in a game or allows two or fewer goals with at least a .885 save percentage. The thinking is that if a goaltender is meeting those numbers, he's giving his team a chance to win.
When it comes to that criteria, there is only one goaltender better than Crawford this season. Rinne leads the league (minimum 20 starts) with a .732 quality start percentage, having recorded 41 quality starts in 56 games this season. Crawford is second with a .729 percentage, as he has 35 quality starts in 48 games. He is followed by Devan Dubnyk (.698), Lundqvist (.667), Price (.667), Cory Schneider (.667) and Rask (.667). Over the past three years, Crawford is third behind Rask and Schneider in quality start percentage.
“Teams have roughly a 75 percent chance of winning when a goalie posts a quality start and only 25 percent otherwise,” said long-time analytics pioneer Rob Vollman, who created the quality start statistic for hockey. “It doesn't mean that Crawford is the best goalie or that he has been stealing games like Carey Price, but rather that he has quietly been giving the Hawks a reasonable chance to win every night.
“There is also the notion of a blown start, which is when a goalie fails to stop even 88.5 percent of the shots, giving the team only a 10 percent chance of winning. Crawford has only 10 of those over the last three seasons, which is amazingly low. He's a hard goalie to chase.”
That consistency is something Crawford has been striving for ever since he was put into the Blackhawks’ No. 1 role in the 2010-11 season. His play has fluctuated since then, which is another reason he isn’t always associated with the game’s premier goaltenders.
Crawford had his share of highs and lows during his first two years as the Blackhawks’ starter. He especially took a lot of criticism for the team’s first-round exit in the 2012 playoffs, and there were questions whether he was good enough to lead a team to a Stanley Cup.
Crawford erased that doubt in 2013 by going 19-5-5 with a 1.94 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in the regular season and taking his game to another level with a .932 save percentage in 16 wins on the way to the Stanley Cup. It’s against that season that Crawford evaluates himself, and he believes he’s exceeding it now.
“I feel like I’m getting better as a goalie,” the 30-year-old recently said. “Experience is one of the biggest things. You learn so much as you go. Being able to adjust to the way teams score, the way teams attack, I find that’s one of the most important things -- learning, being able to adjust to the game as it changes a little bit.
“I definitely feel like I was better now than I was a few years ago. The stretch or the run to the Cup was pretty good hockey. I’ve learned so much since then that I think I’ve rounded my game pretty good. I always want to get better.”
Crawford was getting that from himself for the first 18 games this season. He was 12-5-1 with a 1.87 goals-against average and .929 save percentage when his season got derailed by an off-ice injury. He missed a step leaving a concert and was out nearly a month due to the injury. It took the end of December and part of January for him to return to top form.
As of late, Crawford’s been even better. With the Blackhawks going through an adjustment phase, especially offensively, without Patrick Kane, who fractured his clavicle Feb. 24, Crawford has kept them in every game. He has made 216 saves on 224 shots for a .964 save percentage in seven starts since Kane’s injury. He hasn’t allowed more than two goals in any of those games. Overall, he is 29-14-5 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .926 save percentage this season.
Newly acquired Blackhawks defenseman Kimmo Timonen has been impressed.
“I saw him playing against him many years, but he’s been really good [lately], and if he plays like that, we’re going to win games because of him,” Timonen said. “That’s all about goaltending nowadays. You have to have it because if you don’t, it doesn’t matter what kind of team you have. Look at all the good teams: Montreal or Nashville, they’ve got really good goalies. So if he plays like that, we really have a good chance.”
The quantity and quality have been in Crawford’s saves lately. He brought the home crowd to its feet after denying the New York Rangers’ Chris Kreider with an outstretched, right leg save and then stopping Martin St. Louis and Derek Stepan at point-blank range during a 60-second span in the third period March 8. Chants of “Corey” rung out Tuesday when Crawford made a series of saves while on the ground during the second period against the New York Islanders.
Crawford certainly had the San Jose Sharks frustrated over the weekend, when they peppered him with seven quality shots in the first three-plus minutes and 26 shots over the first two periods. He made 33 saves on 35 shots in the 6-2 win.
“We were sharp right from the drop of the puck,” the Sharks’ Joe Thornton said. “Crawford made some great saves.”
The Blackhawks have come to expect Crawford to emerge in such situations.
“The games get bigger, he seems to rise to the occasion,” Quenneville said. “He’s had some big third periods for us. We need him.”
Opponents have become aware of that as well.
“He’s a consistent performer that makes the critical saves at the critical time,” one Western Conference scout said.
Crawford’s consistent success in recent weeks has meant backup goaltender Scott Darling has been planted on the Blackhawks’ bench. Darling hasn’t minded. He has enjoyed seeing Crawford play the way he has.
“What isn’t he doing well?” Darling recently said. “He’s playing amazing. He’s making timely saves. A lot of these games, he’s coming out hot, especially San Jose. A lot of them, he’s had huge first periods where the games could have been totally different if he doesn’t come out so strong. He’s seeing pucks well, reacting well. He’s reading the play great. Everything he’s doing right now is top-notch, whether it be playing the puck or controlling his rebounds. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.
“He uses a lot of skill and athleticism. You can tell he’s super confident right now. He’s reacting to pucks and making big saves look easy. That’s when you know you’re feeling it.”
Crawford’s reputation among other goaltenders is great, as well.
“I haven’t followed him so much this year, but obviously he’s a good goalie,” Rask said Wednesday. “He’s proven to be an elite goalie in the league. Their team is so good nobody really talks about him. He’s a big guy, very technical, butterfly goalie, and when he sees the puck, he’s going to stop it.”
Crawford isn’t bothered by the fact that he often isn't included in the same sentence as goaltenders such as Rask. It doesn’t mean Crawford isn’t aiming for that, though.
“I want to be the best,” Crawford said. “It’s not something I get caught up in talking about it. I just go out there and play. ... For me, it's go out there and playing the same way and approaching it the same way every time, so you get almost the same results every time you're out there."