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Better than ever: Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford in full playoff flight

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Crawford leads Blackhawks past Kings 3-1 in Game 1

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Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford clears the puck away from Kings right winger Justin Williams during Game 1 of the Western Conference final in Chicago on Sunday. (AP)

CHICAGO — The first two games of the playoffs, Corey Crawford allowed the tying goal late in regulation, then the winning goal in overtime. Suddenly, the Chicago Blackhawks faced a 2-0 series deficit against the St. Louis Blues, and their hopes of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups – and three Cups in five years – were in jeopardy.

He could have hid. He could have leaned on cliches. He could have blamed bad luck.

He didn’t.

He stood up, spoke frankly and blamed himself – maybe too much. He had allowed eight goals in two games, and he had gotten pieces of some of those pucks. He made a statement that resonates now.

“I have to be better,” he said.

Crawford has been excellent since, as the Blackhawks have rallied to beat the Blues in six, beat the Minnesota Wild in six and hold a 1-0 lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference final.

He has a 1.90 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. Those numbers are almost identical to the ones he put up last year (1.84, .932), when he could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player, and to the ones put up by the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist this year (1.93, .934). Crawford has allowed one goal in each of his past three games.

“I think he’s so strong mentally, he’s become one of the top goalies in the league,” said Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa. “He was not just good, but he was unbelievable last year in the playoffs. This year, I think he’s even better.”

One of the top goalies in the NHL? Most would argue that. After posting a career-high .926 save percentage in 2012-13, Crawford regressed to .917 this season, ranking 22nd. He was seventh in even-strength save percentage in 2012-13 at .935; he was 15th this season at .925.

But there is no argument he is strong mentally. There is no argument he was an important part of the Blackhawks’ championship run last year, and there is no argument he has been just as good so far this year.

You have to be strong mentally to play goal for a stacked team like the Blackhawks. Generally you cannot be the hero, only the goat. Crawford spent five seasons in the minors, then took over as the starter for a team coming off a Cup – and a salary-cap purge. His first two playoff runs ended in the first round. He allowed some soft goals in 2012.

But the Blackhawks stuck with Crawford, and Crawford stuck with it. He improved mentally and physically, learning how to shake off soft goals and focus on the next shot, adding more athleticism and flexibility to his technical game. “I think over the last two years I’ve been able to make saves that I probably wouldn’t have been able to make in my first two years,” he said.

After winning the Cup, he received the team’s final player-of-the-game title belt from Patrick Kane, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner. “I thought he was our best player in the playoffs,” Kane said. “I thought he deserved it.” He also received a six-year, $36 million extension that starts next season.

When he ran into trouble against the Blues, he didn’t panic. He wasn’t afraid to point the finger at himself. He didn’t carry it with him.

“It’s inside your head,” said Blackhawks backup Antti Raanta. “You can talk about it, or you can just let it go and start focusing on the next game. I think Crow did that. I think he was thinking about [Game 2] a little bit when we were flying back. But next day, when we came to the rink, he was just focusing to the next game. After that, there has been just unreal games.”

Crawford pitched a 34-save shutout in Game 3 against the Blues. He has allowed two goals or fewer in eight of his past 11 games.

In Game 6 against the Wild, he made 34 saves, keeping the score 1-1 until Kane ended the series in OT.

“I said after the game, ‘Crow, I was so nervous on the bench,’ ” Raanta said. “It felt all the time that Minnesota has, like, the perfect scoring chances. Crow just made the saves. I think he believed if he can make those saves, we’re going to score one goal, and that’s what happened.”

In Game 1 against the Kings, Crawford made 25 saves – 16 in the second period as L.A. threatened to take control.

“I just think that he’s grown as a goaltender,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “I think he’s shown steady progress with his game. He’s developed in all aspects. You get a little bit more mature. You get a little quicker. You get more familiar with the league. You get confidence in yourself.”

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said it’s about time Crawford got some credit.

“If we have a game where we don’t play solid defensively and a couple of goals go in that everyone expects him to have, he gets the blame right away,” Toews said. “I don’t think he really cares about what’s being said. He’s just going to do his job.”

The best part is, Crawford really doesn’t seem to care what’s being said.

The NHL’s general managers put him behind his backup, Ray Emery, in the Vezina Trophy voting last season. A media panel didn’t give him the Conn Smythe last spring. Team Canada didn’t take him to the Sochi Olympics.

A lot of athletes say they don’t care but they do, using disrespect as fuel. Crawford certainly could.

He doesn’t.

He’s calm, quiet and classy, and his mind stays on what matters.

“You have to remember, that’s just someone’s opinion, right?” Crawford said. “That’s the way I look at it. It’s somebody’s opinion. So whether he’s right or wrong, who’s going to say he’s right or wrong? It’s just talk. That’s all it is. To me, it’s just talk.”

Told he had the final say, he disagreed.

“I don’t get to decide anything,” he said. “I’m not playing to decide who’s right or wrong. I’m playing to win hockey games and win a childhood dream. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about proving something.”


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