|Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford sat to forward Patrick Sharp's right at the podium following Game 2 Sunday night and intently listened to his teammate -- and the first star of the game -- talk him up.
"Yeah, he's awesome," Sharp started saying as Crawford, who had just made 29 saves in a 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings to put the Blackhawks up 2-0 in the Western Conference Final, leaned back in his chair and turned his body halfway to his left to show that he was interested in the answer, too.
"[I've] been answering questions all year about Corey, if he's the No. 1 guy, if he can do it," Sharp continued. "[I] said the same answer all along -- there's no question in our locker room. He's the guy we want in net back there. He's proven it in the past. It's nice to see him finally get the credit that he deserves."
As Sharp finished, Crawford reached out his arm and patted him on the back, as if to say thank you.
It's easy to understand why he'd do something like that considering the biggest question mark facing the Blackhawks all season has been their goaltending and, specifically, how Crawford would hold up once the games started to matter more and the pressure ramped up.
He's answered well, so much so that it should be the rest of the Blackhawks patting Crawford on the back. He has been the better of the two goalies in the conference final even though the other guy is Jonathan Quick, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner and the hottest thing going in the Stanley Cup Playoffs entering this round.
"My focus is more on their players, what they're doing," Crawford said, "but yeah, I definitely want to beat him [Quick]."
Crawford wasn't tested often in Game 1, but he had little margin for error to work with and he stood up to the task with 21 saves, including 12 in the second period, for a 2-1 win. He faced consistent pressure early in Game 2, when the Kings came at him with 13 shots on goal in the first period, but he stood up to that, too, and finished the game with 29 saves.
The two goals he allowed Sunday came after Chicago built a 4-0 lead. Prior to that, Crawford made a big, in-tight save on Anze Kopitar during a Kings' power play with six seconds left in the first period and a spectacular glove save on Dustin Penner off the rush late in the second. He also boldly came out of his crease late in the first period to cut off Tyler Toffoli's scoring chance after the puck took an odd bounce off the glass.
"On that play when it went off the glass, he showed a lot of confidence coming out and making that save," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. "He's been great."
Crawford has a 1.50 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in the two games against Los Angeles and he's taken over Quick's spot as the League-leader in GAA for the playoffs at 1.67. He's second behind Quick with a .938 save percentage.
Game 3 is Tuesday at Staples Center (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).
"I feel like I've been pretty strong, pretty consistent this year," Crawford said. "I've taken pride in that this year, to have the same game every night, to give our guys a chance. With a team like this, we have such a great offense, just give our guys a chance and make sure it stays within a goal or two and we're in good shape."
Crawford's confidence goes back to the summer, when instead of dwelling on the 17 goals he allowed in a six-game series loss to the Phoenix Coyotes in the conference quarterfinals, he decided it was time to put all the questions about his game, experience and ability in clutch situations to bed once and for all.
It helped that Chicago general manager Stan Bowman, who could have looked elsewhere for a goalie, perhaps even to Vancouver for Roberto Luongo, instead chose to stick with the tandem of Crawford and Ray Emery.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said the team had a feeling they'd get a lights-out season from Crawford because despite his struggles last season (2.72 GAA and .903 save percentage in 57 regular-season appearances), they had seen him be great before.
He put up a 2.30 GAA and .917 save percentage in 57 appearances during the 2010-11 season and complimented that with a strong playoff series against the Canucks, when he posted a 2.21 GAA and .921 save percentage over seven games.
"Look at the history of goaltenders, they come on their rookie year, they might have real good starts to their career -- Corey had a great finish to that [2010-11] season -- and the next year I think with the standards, it's tough to stay there," Quenneville said. "You get that job of being the No. 1 goalie, expectations become different, teams are ready. It seems like a number of top goalies come running out their rookie year and the next year is a little challenging.
"We still felt he was capable of being an elite goalie, a top goalie. This year he was ready to go."
This season, Crawford won 19 games with a .926 save percentage and 1.94 GAA.
Perhaps the best part of Crawford's contribution all season has been his consistency. He has allowed two or fewer goals in 31 of his 44 appearances between the regular season and playoffs. He had one minor slump in March, at the end of Chicago's 24-game point streak, when he allowed 11 goals over three games, including a season-high five in the streak-busting 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on March 8.
"He did what he had to do all year long and didn't change his approach whether there were a couple of goals in," Quenneville said. "He hasn't had any games all year where we're disappointed with his contribution.”
Working in tandem with Emery helped because the competition helped to drive the consistency. Crawford previously compared it to when he worked in tandem with Antti Niemi in the American Hockey League.
Quenneville kept Crawford and Emery on their toes by making sure both were prepared to play before he named a starting goalie for the next game. Emery also put up big numbers -- a 1.94 GAA and .922 save percentage in 21 appearances.
"They gave our team a lot of confidence knowing the predictability of the goaltending was in place," Quenneville said of Crawford and Emery. "The support they had for one another was there. I think there's some competitiveness, too, that pushes the other guy that they want to do well. They compete."
Emery's late-season lower-body injury made what could have been a difficult decision for Quenneville easy since he had no choice but to go with Crawford as the Blackhawks' No. 1 playoff goalie. But Crawford still knows that any slip-up and he could switch spots with Emery in a heartbeat.
It doesn't appear a change is coming. Crawford has barely had any slip-ups all season, meaning Sharp was right all along.
He is the Blackhawks' No. 1 guy. He can do it. And now he's getting some credit for it.
"He's hounding the puck, he's all over it," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "He's side-to-side and he's as competitive as it gets right now."