Unsung Crawford steps up again

CHICAGO -- On a day when the Chicago Blackhawks played without the puck for long stretches of time and the Los Angeles Kings looked anything but tired, it was once again left to the quiet man in the Blackhawks net to save the day.

It is a recurring theme when it comes to Corey Crawford, who continues to post victories in spite of the fact he has by far the lowest profile of any of the four remaining goaltenders in playoffs.

Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, Jonathan Quick are all world-class goaltenders, who, combined, have Olympic gold medals and Vezina Trophies and playoff MVP honors to their credit, and it's a fair bet that if you asked 100 hockey people to rank them, Crawford would place 4th on 90 percent of the ballots.

Still, the fact remains Crawford is seven wins away from winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, high profile or not, recognition or not, following his 25-save performance in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

Chicago captain Jonathan Toews joked that he needed to come up with more original material for his press briefings, the implication that he is used to a) being asked about Crawford and b) praising Crawford's work.

"I think he keeps getting better and better," said Toews, who scored the team's third goal on an odd-man rush late in the third period. "As a team, we want to keep raising our level of play as the stage gets bigger and bigger. If there's anyone that's doing it, it's Crow. Whether it's big penalty kills or us protecting situations late in games, he just seems to get better and better as the pressure mounts.

"We were talking a few days ago about the crowd chanting his name in Minnesota [during the last round]. Doesn't matter how much pressure is on him, he just seems to keep playing. It's an example that I think the rest of us can follow."

Talk to lots of people connected to the Blackhawks and there's a distinct feeling that Crawford got jobbed in voting for the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) last June that he was more deserving than Patrick Kane. I don't agree, but the fact is there is a widespread belief that Crawford was the team's most valuable performer as it won its second Stanley cup in four years.

Still, in spite of his championship credentials, Crawford was never really a factor when it came to the Canadian Olympic team and his name was well down the list in Vezina Trophy discussions about possible. And here he is once again doing the only thing that matters at the only time of year that matters: winning.

"I think he feels the same," said forward Brandon Saad, who scored the Blackhawks' first goal, on the power play. "He might be a little bit more focused but we saw that last year during the playoffs with how he can steal games and step up and take over a game. So, we expect that out of him. He tries not to get frustrated. I know that's something he's been working on and he does a good job with never getting too high or low because tomorrow's always another day. He did a great job tonight."

On Sunday, he stopped 16 of 17 Kings shots in the second period to help the Blackhawks win their seventh straight playoff home game. They are the only team in the playoffs without at least one home loss.

His play was especially key after the Kings tied the game on a nice redirect of a Tanner Pearson pass by Tyler Toffoli before the second period was five minutes old. The Blackhawks had been denied a 2-0 lead moments earlier when a Toews goal was called back because the Blackhawks captain interfered with Kings netminder Jonathan Quick before the puck crossed the line.

The Kings seized the moment and controlled the play for most of the period. But Crawford was excellent and midway through the period Duncan Keith's hard point shot glanced off Trevor Lewis and ricocheted off the ice and over Quick's shoulder to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead, one which they would not relinquish.

"Confidence has always been there," Crawford said. "The first thing is being prepared, having that preparation to play, to try and have my game at the highest level it can be each time I get out there.

"It's knowing the other team, their tendencies. After that, it's just going out there and playing. Also I'm getting a lot of help from our guys in front of me. That third period today was rock solid. I don't remember too many great chances that they got in the third. We kind of just shut them down there, obviously got a key goal by [Toews].

"I approach every next game. That's always the most important. Game 2 is now the most important. I'm going to rest up now and prepare for that."

During the 2012 playoffs, Crawford allowed a couple of questionable overtime goals to the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round and the Blackhawks were bounced in six games. There were questions about his mental toughness.

Those questions, if they haven't completely been answered, are asked in much quieter voices now.

After dropping the first two games of this postseason, Crawford has won nine of 11, including three in a row. Since those opening two losses against the St. Louis Blues, in which he allowed eight goals and publicly acknowledged he needed to be better, Crawford has allowed two or fewer goals eight times. He has now allowed one goal in each of his last three games.

"No, I think he's like he was last year," offered winger Bryan Bickell. "A couple of years ago, he had that mishap and I think he just picked it up mentally. It's nice to see him there and have him there every shift, every game. He's doing everything it takes. You can see a couple of big saves on the power play for them but hat's off to him, he does it every night."

While the Blackhawks are favored to win this series, if there is a theory supporting another upset by the 2012 Stanley Cup champs it's that Quick gives the Kings an edge in goaltending. That's not how it turned out Sunday, not that Crawford pays much attention to the man behind the mask at the other end of the ice.

"No, unless he skates down the ice and starts dangling around our guys," Crawford told reporters. "I mean, I'm focused on their players. It really doesn't affect my game, whatever goes on at the other end."

The answer brought some chuckles from reporters and an amused nod of the head from Toews, who was sitting next to his goaltender.

"Well said," Toews said with a big grin.