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Crawford comes into his own

by Mike Peck / Chicago Blackhawks

This week, will focus on the four long-time members of the AHL's Rockford IceHogs -- Corey Crawford, Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell and Jack Skille -- who have made the full-time jump this season to the Chicago Blackhawks.

There are no more long bus rides.

Three games in three nights aren’t on their schedule anymore. 

Interstate-90 commutes between Rockford and Chicago are non-existent as well.

Life is a little different in 2010-11 for Bryan Bickell, Corey Crawford, Jake Dowell and Jack Skille.  The distance between the Rockford MetroCentre and the United Center is about 90 miles and on a good day it takes about 90 minutes to get between the two.

It took this quartet of players a lot longer than that to get to Chicago, but now that they are with the Blackhawks, they are all making the most of their opportunity.

WORTH THE WAIT will feature each of the four former Rockford IceHogs this week.

Monday: Corey Crawford
Tuesday: Bryan Bickell
Thursday: Jake Dowell
Friday: Jack Skille

Bickell, Crawford, Dowell and Skille represented the core of the Rockford IceHogs over the past three American Hockey League seasons. The four skaters helped Rockford reach the Calder Cup Playoffs in all three campaigns, just one of three teams in the Western Conference to accomplish that feat.

Combined, the four players played in 881 career AHL games, including 707 in Rockford before sticking with Blackhawks this season.

The path wasn’t always smooth, or even went in the same direction, but the end goal was all the same for them. Now they are making an impact in the National Hockey League.

The Future is the Present for Crawford

It’s key for goaltenders to have a short term memory.  Tabbed as the goalie of the future for the Blackhawks by many after his second round selection (#52 overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Corey Crawford had to wonder if the future would ever get here.

While honing his skills in the AHL, Crawford saw the likes of Patrick Lalime, Cristobal Huet, Antti Niemi and Marty Turco move into the organization and move ahead of him of the depth chart.

“My thought process was if I wasn’t here then I wasn’t good enough,” commented Crawford on his road to the NHL. “I had to work on my game. I was still playing a lot of games in the American Hockey League, which was really good. It was still fun to play hockey in that league; it’s a really good league.”

After five seasons in the Blackhawks organization, Crawford made the team out of training camp for the first time in his career in 2010-11. Crawford has finally found an opportunity to step into and excel in the NHL. 

Part of Crawford's growth included gaining self-confidence. “My thought was that if I wasn’t [in Chicago], I wasn’t good enough."

It wasn’t that Crawford didn’t have the accolades in the AHL. The puck-stopper never had fewer than 22 wins in a season, had just one losing season in his career (22-23-1 during his rookie campaign in 2005-06) and is Rockford’s all-time winningest goalie.

“If you look at the four guys that are here from last season’s Rockford team, he probably had the toughest road,” said former IceHogs head coach and current Blackhawks assistant Mike Haviland. “He played the longest in the AHL and I think Crow really stayed focused. I know he had some ups and downs emotionally, but every player in the AHL has that.

“You get a taste of the NHL and you want to be here. It’s the guys who can re-focus and stay focused on the task at hand and what they have to work on to get out of that league. Crow certainly did it and he paid his dues and it was his turn. To see what he’s doing right now is outstanding.”

The Montreal, Quebec native played just eight games with Chicago through his first five professional seasons, and like all AHL prospects had to deal with the tough mental part of the game. 

Whether it was dealing with goalies brought in from outside of the organization or stuck in the middle of a salary cap crunch, Crawford stayed focused and has established himself as one of the top rookie goaltenders in the NHL this year.

“Sometimes you have doubts in your mind about making it,” said Crawford. “I was always a guy that tried to work hard and always get better. And that was a key for my success and being able to make that next step to this level and not giving up early.

“There are guys that I’ve seen that haven’t made the next step that had the skill, but weren’t strong enough mentally to make it to the next level.”

Crawford is making waves during his first full NHL stint. Entering 2011, Crawford ranked in the top three among all NHL rookie goalies in wins, save percentage and goals against average.

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