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Crawford focused solely on the present

by Shawn P. Roarke / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Goaltender Corey Crawford has learned the fine art of forgetting about the past. As a result, his present and future have been infinitely more enjoyable.

"I approach every next game [like] that's always the most important," Crawford said minutes after playing a starring role in the Chicago Blackhawks' Western Conference Final opening-game victory against the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday. "Game 2 is now the most important. I'm going to rest up now and prepare for that."

With more than 72 hours between the end of Game 1 and the start of Game 2 here at United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS), Crawford will have a lot of time to think about the recent run he has put together.

Crawford, 29, is tied for the NHL lead in Stanley Cup Playoff victories (nine), and has the tournament's best goals-against average (1.90) and save percentage (.933).

Since allowing eight goals to the Minnesota Wild in a four-period stretch during Games 3 and 4 of the last round, Crawford has allowed three goals in the past 189 minutes, stopping 86 of 89 shots. Twenty-five of those saves came Sunday against a Kings team which had scored six goals in its previous game, a Game 7 triumph against the Anaheim Ducks.

Crawford won't spend a minute savoring what has happened. He will study film, play back key sequences in the first game and go through his mental book on what the top players from Los Angeles like to do when the puck is on their sticks.

"The first thing is being prepared," he said. "Having that preparation to play, to try to have my game at the highest level it can be each time I get out there. It's knowing the other team, [its] tendencies. After that, it's just going out there and playing."

It wasn't always that simple for Crawford.

He lost eight of his first 13 playoff games as Chicago's No. 1, falling flat in an attempt to continue the momentum gained from the 2010 Stanley Cup championship, which had been won by the goaltending duo of Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet.

They were tough lessons for a young goalie to absorb but they were, perhaps, necessary.

Last season Crawford entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a renewed focus. Twenty-three games later he was hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head, celebrating a career-defining moment. Crawford wasn't just along for the ride either.

He had a 1.84 GAA and a .932 save percentage in the postseason, each number better than his regular-season total in that category. Crawford had found his way at the NHL level, something the Blackhawks believed would come.

Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson joined the Blackhawks for the 2007-08 season. He and Crawford were members of the shuttle between the parent club and its affiliate in the American Hockey League, the Rockford IceHogs.

It was there when Hjalmarsson first noticed Crawford played his best when the stakes were the highest.

"I know exactly how he works, and one thing about him that's huge is the way that he approaches big games and big challenges," Hjalmarsson said Monday. "Always when we had big games, when we were down in Rockford, he was always on his best games when it matters the most. That's what I think is the most important quality with a goalie, to be able to play the best when it matters the most.

"And in that category I don't think there's a lot of other goalies in this League that [are] better than Corey. They might have better [save] percentage or whatever, but once it comes down to having a big game and when it matters most, I think Corey has proven himself to be definitely one of the best goalies in that category."

Nothing seems to rattle Crawford these days. He got blitzed in Minnesota in Game 3, but afterward basically said, "So what? We knew it would be a series and now it is."

It was the same thing after Game 4. In Game 6, against a Wild team which had not lost at home in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Crawford nearly was unbeatable and held the fort long enough for Patrick Kane to win the game midway through the first overtime. He stopped 34 of 35 shots while the raucous crowd at Xcel Energy Center chanted his name in a mocking way, hoping to intimidate him into a mistake.

Crawford never gave the Minnesota crowd the satisfaction.

"We were talking a few days ago about the crowd chanting his name in Minnesota," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "Doesn't matter how much pressure is on him, he just seems to keep playing. It's an example that I think the rest of us can follow."

"[Crawford] is so strong mentally," said top-line forward Marian Hossa.

For the Blackhawks, who now are three victories from a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final, they expect even more from their star goalie now.

"I think he keeps getting better and better," Toews said. "As a team we want to keep raising our level of play as the stage gets bigger and bigger. If there's anyone that's doing it, it's [Crawford]. Whether it's big penalty kills or us protecting situations late in games, he just seems to get better and better as the pressure mounts."

Author: Shawn Roarke | Director, Editorial

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