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Rivalry Night Faceoff: Miller vs. Crawford

Wednesday, 03.19.2014 / 2:00 AM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week, we are trying to determine which goaltender is better equipped to lead his team to the Stanley Cup, Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks or Ryan Miller of the St. Louis Blues.

Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford won the Stanley Cup last year, but he still has critics who need to see more to be convinced he's among the elite players at his position in the NHL. St. Louis Blues goalie Ryan Miller has an Olympic silver medal from four years ago and nothing more, yet he has been referred to as the final piece to his new team's championship puzzle this season.

The comparing statements don't seem to add up, but neither is all that farfetched considering Crawford still hears about inconsistencies in his game and Miller has been almost unbeatable since joining the Blues from the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 28.

Crawford and Miller are expected to be in goal Wednesday at United Center (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2) in what could be a playoff preview in the Central Division. The matchup provides the ideal opportunity to ask one important question:

Which goalie is better suited to lead his team to the Stanley Cup this season?

COREY CRAWFORD

Crawford might one day be seen as this generation's Chris Osgood or Mike Vernon in that he may never be fully appreciated but he could finish his career with multiple Stanley Cup rings.

For years Osgood was considered the Detroit Red Wings' biggest question mark, but he helped them win the Stanley Cup twice as a starter (1998 and 2008) and once as a backup to Mike Vernon (1997). He finished his career with 401 wins, including 317 as a Red Wing.

Vernon won the Cup with Calgary in 1989 before winning again with the Red Wings eight years later. He finished his career with 385 wins.

"Whereas there were other goalies around the League that maybe had higher pedigree and were perceived as being winners yet had never won, year after year Osgood and Vernon made the Detroit Red Wings more than just competitive, they gave them a chance to compete for the Cup every year," NBCSN analyst Pierre McGuire told NHL.com. "I know they had good teams, but Crawford is virtually the same."

Crawford won the Stanley Cup last season, playing his way into the Conn Smythe Trophy discussion with a .932 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average despite being knocked for his glove hand, a perceived weakness that the Boston Bruins tried to exploit in the Final. McGuire said he has not heard anyone talking about Crawford's glove hand this season, a sign it isn't that big of a deal.

Instead, Crawford enters the game Wednesday with 26 wins, a 2.26 GAA and .918 save percentage. These aren't Vezina Trophy-worthy numbers, but they're good enough that the Blackhawks shouldn't have any questions about their No. 1 goalie with the playoffs less than a month away.

"I'm a big fan of Corey Crawford's game," NHL Network and CBC analyst Kevin Weekes said. "He has grown by leaps and bounds since the start of last season."

Crawford, though, still gets dinged by fans and media for his consistency because occasionally he'll give up a so-called bad goal; never mind the fact that it's the same type of goal that would be brushed off as a rare off-moment for goalies considered to have a stronger pedigree such as Miller, Tuukka Rask, Carey Price, Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist.

"He has endured because his work habits are good, he's battled through the adversity, taken the slings and arrows form the media and the fans, and he's handled it well," McGuire said. "It's really important for a goalie like him to be popular with his teammates. Osgood was that guy in Detroit and Crawford is that guy in Chicago."

RYAN MILLER

This opportunity with the Blues is the one Miller has waited for since 2009-10. He won a career-high 41 games that season and helped the Sabres win the Northeast Division with 100 points, but that was before they flamed out in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, losing to the Boston Bruins in six games.

Miller still had a .926 save percentage and 2.34 GAA in that series, but the Sabres fell behind 3-1 after losing Game 4 in double overtime.

His only other real chance with a Cup contender came in 2006-07, when he won 40 games and the Sabres won the Presidents' Trophy with 113 points. They reached the Eastern Conference Final, but lost in five games to the Ottawa Senators.

He's motivated, hungry, fresh and if his first eight starts for the Blues prove anything, Miller is ready.

He is 7-0-1 with a 1.61 GAA and .933 save percentage with the Blues. Miller has allowed two or fewer goals in all but one of his starts, but five of them came against teams that weren't aren't in playoff position.

"He's a competitor, an ultra-competitor, and this is the best team he's ever played on," McGuire said. "I'm not talking about international hockey, just the NHL, and this is the best team he's ever played on in the NHL. The perceived as a weak link in St. Louis, whether it was fair or not, was in goal. Now they have addressed that and they think they have a chance to win because of him."

It's also possible that Miller is stronger mentally now because of how he handled a difficult situation in Buffalo this season. Weekes credited him for staying strong and playing well (.923 save percentage) despite facing more than 35 shots a game and playing behind one of the League's weakest defensive teams.

"He never pouted and he never complained," Weekes said. "He just went out there and did his job."

Miller's job now is to backstop the Blues to their first Stanley Cup championship. His arrival in St. Louis made it a Cup-or-bust season in a city starving for the silver trophy.

"He's one of the guys that can face this kind of adversity, and by that I mean when you go into St. Louis every game you play now you're under the microscope," McGuire said. "I don't think he's intimidated by that at all."

VERDICT

When asked point-blank which goalie gives his team the best chance to win the Cup this season, Weekes responded, "It's hard to go against the guy who has done it before."

It's hard to disagree with that statement.

Crawford has the slight edge over Miller based on experience because he has proven himself as a winner at the highest level and under the most pressure. Even though Miller is older, has played in more playoff games (47-37) and has more playoff wins (25-21) than Crawford, he hasn't even come close to reaching the level the Blackhawks' goalie reached last season.

Miller might get there this spring, but until he does the jury in this case has to go with Crawford.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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