Chicago's Man between the Pipes Is Smokin'
After Wednesday night's epic five hour triple-overtime victory over the Boston, the Chicago Blackhawks have moved one step closer to sport's ultimate prize.
Whether Chicago reaches the mountaintop or not, one thing stands clear. What was once perceived as Chicago's only weakness may indeed have become their biggest strength.
In the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, goaltender Corey Crawford has been second to none.
Even during the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup triumph in 2010, goaltending had always been the club's most mortal spot. It was the firepower of young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews, the leadership of Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, the solid defense of Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjälmarsson, and Brent Seabrook and the many contributions of their role players on any given night.
Goaltending had been something they just went with as it came. They rode Anti Niemi's hot hand to the Cup that year after a back-and-forth platoon with him and the French goaltender Cristobal Huet. Niemi won out the job and then the Cup but was soon jettisoned out of town to save cap space.
The next two years, the Hawks tried to regain their footing after their roster shuffle. The main core remained, but new goaltenders were brought in each season. In 2010, the aging Marty Turco was dug up to compete for Crawford's job. He didn't succeed. The Hawks made the playoffs as an eight-seed but lost to the Presidents Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks in 2010-2011 in a memorable seven games. Crawford's job seemed safe for the time being ... or was it?
In 2011 veteran, Ray Emery was signed. Emery had a pedigree: a 2007 Finals appearance with Ottawa. He would compete for Crawford's job for the next two years.
After Crawford gave up three overtime goals in Chicago's loss to Phoenix last spring, the naysayers were getting loud in Chicago. Even as the the Blackhawks were setting records this spring, Coach Quennville joked that they would platoon goalies for the playoffs.
But Chicago stayed course, and the rest is history ... literally historic.
Coming into the Finals, Crawford is averaging a league best 1.50 goals allowed. Crawford has dominated the playoffs and outdueled some of the best goalies in the league. It was the Red Wings Jimmy Howard who drew all the praise and attention in Round 2. But it was Crawford who outplayed him down the stretch, allowing the Blackhawks to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win that series.
In the Western Conference Finals, it was the Kings Jonathan Quick who was called "unbeatable at home" and "the best goalie in the NHL." Yet it was Crawford who outlasted him in a Game 5 double-overtime elimination thriller.
Now after his bedazzling triple-overtime performance in Game 1 of the Finals, it's Crawford who has to be considered the front runner for Conn Symthe Award.
Whether the Blackhawks win or lose the Stanley Cup, I think Chicago has found their man between the pipes.