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Bruins vs. Blackhawks: Tuukka Rask, Corey Crawford ready and waiting for Stanley Cup chance

CHICAGO — In 2010, when Chicago won the Stanley Cup, Corey Crawford was not a Blackhawk. He was a Black Ace. He was a minor-leaguer who spent the playoffs practicing with the spare parts. Looking back, he said he wasn’t around “the team” too much but knew “the guys” and was happy for “them.” In other words, he wasn’t part of the team, wasn’t one of the guys, wasn’t one of them. Where was he when the ’Hawks clinched?

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Corey Crawford watched from the stands when Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010. (USA Today)

“I was in the stands,” he said.

In 2011, when Boston won the Stanley Cup, Tuukka Rask was indeed a Bruin. He was in uniform, too. He just didn’t play a second as Tim Thomas won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. Looking back, he had already established himself on the team and in the NHL at that point, so he said he felt part of the group and “fully enjoyed” the victory. Yet …

“It’s tough to sit on the bench, for sure,” he said.

Now here we are in 2013. The Blackhawks have returned to the Stanley Cup final with the same core, the Bruins have returned to the Stanley Cup final with virtually the same team, and the biggest difference for both is at the position that can make the biggest difference – goaltender.

Crawford and Rask are different men. Crawford is Canadian; Rask’s a Finn. Crawford was a second-round draft pick; Rask was a first-rounder. Crawford was a blocker who had to add athleticism; Rask was an athlete who had to add technique. Crawford has been perceived as the weak link; Rask has been perceived as the heir apparent.

[Watch: Breaking down the goalies: Corey Crawford vs. Tuukka Rask]

Yet both had to sit, watch and wait, and for both, the wait is over. Crawford, 28, leads the playoffs in goals-against average at 1.74 and ranks second in save percentage at .935. Rask, 26, leads the playoffs in save percentage at .943 and ranks second in goals-against average at 1.75. Finally, both are where they want to be – on the ice, on top of their game, on the biggest stage.

“What’s really cool is, these franchises have won recently, but neither [Crawford nor Rask] were the guys to do it, and so all the pressure in the world could sit on these two,” said former NHL goaltender Marty Turco, who played with Crawford in Chicago in 2010-11 and spent a stint with Rask in Boston late last season. “But I know both of them really enjoy the pressure. They wanted to be the guy before, and they now have that chance.”

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Crawford could have been the guy in 2010. It’s easy to forget now, but Crawford (seven) actually had played more NHL games than Antti Niemi (three) entering 2009-10. No one had a crystal ball, though the Blackhawks did have a Cristobal – Cristobal Huet, who was destined to lose his job as the starter.

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Tuukka Rask watched Tim Thomas lead the Bruins to the Cup in 2011. Now it's his turn. (AP)

“I had a great chance that year to make the team,” Crawford said. “I didn’t make it.”

Crawford played in the minors for the fifth straight season, while Niemi supplanted Huet and won the Cup. General manager Stan Bowman faced a salary-cap crunch afterward. He walked away from a $2.75 million arbitration award to Niemi and sent Huet and his $5.625 million salary to Europe. Still, he didn’t give Crawford the starting job in 2010-11. He signed Turco.

“I didn’t think that I was owed anything,” Crawford said. “That never crossed my mind. I just had to keep playing hard, keep working hard and force them to make the decision where they had to put me on the team. That year was a lot of fun. I started out as the backup behind Marty, and I learned a lot from that guy.”

When Crawford entered the NHL, he wasn’t just a blocker. Turco said he had worked so hard on his technique that he had become a “super blocker,” actually “over-technical.” It wasn’t enough to be square to the puck against NHL shooters. He had to add more dimensions to his game.

[Watch: Finally, a sports rivalry for Boston and Chicago]

As the season went on, he took over for Turco, carried the Blackhawks down the stretch and helped them come back from a 3-0 deficit in the first round against the Vancouver Canucks, before falling in overtime of Game 7. He posted a .927 save percentage in that series.

Last season was a step backward, especially in the playoffs, when he gave up soft goals and posted a .893 save percentage in a first-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. But he worked on his flexibility and puckhandling, and now he is in position to make more difficult saves and can help his defensemen more effectively. He also bounces back from bad goals better than he did before, focusing on the next save, the next save, the next save. His save percentage in the regular season was .926, and now he has a better one in the playoffs.

“A lot of people had questions on Corey,” Bowman said. “It’s a process for goalies, I think. We’ve always had confidence in his ability. I think it’s nice to now see him getting the recognition that he deserves. The consistent play that we’ve had game in, game out, it’s been that way from the beginning of the year. We know we’re going to get a great performance from him every night.”

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Rask could have been the guy in 2011. It’s easy to forget now, but Rask actually led the NHL in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931) in 2009-10, his first full NHL season, while Thomas battled hip problems. The reason he sat behind Thomas afterward is not because the Bruins blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 Game 7 lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 playoffs, but because Thomas came back with one of the greatest seasons by a goaltender in NHL history.

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Crawford and Rask are four wins away from hockey's ultimate prize. (AP)

Thomas posted a .938 save percentage in 2010-11, the record at the time. He won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. He posted a .940 save percentage in the playoffs to win the Cup and the Conn Smythe. Though he slipped a little in 2011-12, it was from a stratospheric standard and he was coming off a Vezina, a Cup and a Conn Smythe.

Rask couldn’t complain about the hierarchy in Boston. But he could have complained about being in Boston and tried to force his way elsewhere. He didn’t because he liked the team, knew Thomas was much older and trusted his time would come. It helped that he and Thomas were good friends, too.

“Timmy was playing unbelievable, right?” said defenseman Andrew Ference. “And so (Rask) knew that was Timmy’s position. I think it’s when you start looking at other teams around the league and see some of the competition and guys that are playing and guys that are starting and saying, ‘That could be me. That could be me.’ Yet he wanted to be with us and wanted to be a part of our team and wanted to be the next guy to step into that spot when Timmy was done.”

“I think their relationship and their friendship made that easy for both of them, and Tuukka was legitimately happy for Timmy,” said agent Bill Zito, who represents both players. “I know in his mind he doesn’t take a back seat to anybody. It was, ‘He’s got the ball and he’s running with it, and I have to respect that, but I’m ready to go.’ ”

Rask was ready this season after Thomas decided to take a break from hockey. (He was traded to the New York Islanders. He still hasn’t decided whether to play somewhere or retire. “Status quo,” Zito said.)

Once a “real raw goalie” and “super athletic,” in Turco’s words, Rask uses more technique. He stays square longer. Unlike Thomas, unorthodox and dramatic, scrambling all over the place, Rask makes it look easy. He posted a regular-season save percentage of .929 for the second straight time, and now he has a better playoff save percentage than Thomas did when he won the Cup and the Conn Smythe.

“To wait for as long as he did for his shot at the No. 1 spot, and then when you finally do get your shot, to perform well, that’s really impressive,” Ference said. “I think it takes more than just being a good goalie, physically able to stop pucks. I think it takes a lot of mental strength.”

Wait. Was Ference talking about Crawford or Rask? Doesn’t matter.

“Once you’ve seen it and not being on the ice,” Rask said, “I think everybody would like to have that chance someday.”

That day has come for both of them.

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