A failure. Soft. Never going to be able to get it done.
These were some of the words that were used to label Corey Crawford after the playoff failure of last year.
For six years, Crawford was left to toil in the minors and wait his turn. He waited as Nikolai Khabibulin had the reins and then Antti Niemi took over and won a Stanley Cup in 2010.
For the last three years since the Stanley Cup in 2010, Crawford has been living in the shadow of Niemi. The Blackhawks were forced to let Niemi walk away when the San Jose Sharks offered Niklas Hjalmarsson a 4 year, $14 million deal. Hjalmarsson was a restricted free agent and the Blackhawks matched.
Niemi and the Blackhawks went to arbitration and his $2.75 million award was too rich for the Blackhawks blood and they walked away without any compensation.
Talk about having a 600 pound gorilla on your back. Crawford was only replacing the goalie who helped end the Blackhawks 49 year drought.
Crawford had a good rookie season and was looking like a burgeoning star after his brilliant performance in the first round matchup against the Vancouver Canucks.
But last year was a disaster for Crawford. He didn’t record one shutout in well over a year. He struggled finding pucks and gave up soft goal after soft goal. During the playoffs, things got worse for Crawford as he gave up two of the softest goals in playoff history including one that wasn’t touched after it entered the offensive zone.
Maybe the best thing for Crawford and the Blackhawks was the lockout because it gave Crawford even more time away from the glare of the spotlight.
This year Crawford had a brilliant regular season as he went 19-5-5 with a goals against average of 1.94, save percentage of .926 and 3 shutouts. It was a great bounce back season for Crawford whose biggest competition came from not the shadow of Niemi but Ray Emery who went 17-1 and became the winningest goalie to not play a minute in the playoffs.
In the playoffs it was Crawford’s time to shine. He had plenty of big moments in the playoffs. It was routine for Crawford to bail out the Blackhawks as they coasted through periods. As the stakes got higher, Crawford turned up his game.
In Game 6 of the second round, he allowed a soft goal to give the Red Wings the lead. Instead of melting, Crawford got stronger and allowed one goal in the final five and a half periods of the series to allow the Blackhawks to come back from a 3-1 deficit.
In the final two series, Crawford outdueled Jonathan Quick and Tuukka Rask. In the Stanley Cup Final, Crawford was brilliant in Game 1 in triple overtime making big save after big save. In the final two games, Crawford was stellar.
Crawford had a playoff for the ages. He only got better as the playoffs went on and rose to the occasion every time. In 2010, Niemi went 16-6 with a .910 save percentage and goals against average of 2.63 and 2 shutouts. This year, Crawford went 16-7 with a goals against average of 1.84, save percentage of .932 and 1 shutout.
It was hard to believe the Crawford did not get the Conn Smythe trophy. He was the best player on the Blackhawks and is the reason that a supremely talented team could continue to coast in games. It was a luxury this season and plenty of big saves.
It took three long years for Crawford to finally escape the shadow of Niemi. But he did it and in spectacular fashion. It took three long years but Crawford stopped worrying about the shadow and finally said no.