CHICAGO -- When asked if he ever wonders about just missing out on making the Chicago Blackhawks' roster during training camp a season ago, Corey Crawford
smiled politely and shook his head.
"Nah, I haven't even thought about it," said Crawford, a 26-year old rookie goalie for the Blackhawks. "I'm in the now. I'm worried about what we're doing right now."
The "now" for the Blackhawks, at least in the short-term, includes a big weekend coming up. First they'll play the Detroit Red Wings on the road Saturday followed by a home game Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
It will be the Flyers' first time back in Chicago since last June, when the Hawks beat them in the Stanley Cup Final to give The Windy City its first title since 1961. However, much has changed about both teams -- starting with Crawford.
Last season, Crawford wasn't even on the Blackhawks. Instead, he spent his fifth season with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League. Now there's a good chance Crawford could start both games this weekend.
After taking Crawford with its second pick (No.52 overall) of the 2003 Entry Draft, Chicago's perennial "goalie of the future" is finally its "goalie of the now."
It could have happened a year ago. Both Crawford and former Hawks goalie Antti Niemi wanted to be the backup in Chicago, but the Hawks kept Niemi -- who eventually took over the top spot from Cristobal Huet and started every game of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Crawford went back to the minors for another year of development. Rockford is only about 85 miles from Chicago, but it probably seemed like 8,500 at the time for Crawford.
"It was a bit of a tough time," he said. "Every time you get cut from the NHL, it's tough -- especially last year. I thought I had a really good chance to make it. But I just didn't give up and kept working hard."
It would be tough to blame Crawford if he wondered whether he'd ever get a shot with the Hawks -- who'd given him a taste of the NHL with seven games spread over two previous seasons. As it turned out, Crawford's big break came this past summer.
Niemi took the Hawks to arbitration and effectively priced himself out of Chicago. He eventually wound up with the San Jose Sharks as a free agent, and the Hawks signed long-time Dallas Stars veteran Marty Turco. Crawford didn't attend the annual "Blackhawks Fan Convention" in the summer, but it was there the Hawks first mentioned plans to let him play his first full NHL season -- most likely in a back-up role.
Word quickly got back to Crawford, who was guarded but hopeful. This time, though, it was his role to lose and he didn't let that happen.
It is what Crawford has done since training camp that has even caught Chicago's coaches and front office by surprise. After starting the year 1-4 as Turco's back-up, Crawford has gone 14-4-2 since -- earning him the starting job. He also strung together seven straight wins from Nov. 14 to Dec. 8 and posted back-to-back shutouts on Jan. 9 against the New York Islanders and Jan. 12 against the Colorado Avalanche.
It nearly became three straight when he blanked the Nashville Predators for two-plus periods at Bridgestone Arena last weekend, which pushed his shutout span to an impressive 176:09. An argument could be made that Crawford's been the most important player for the Hawks this season -- a beacon of consistency amid a season filled with unpredictability.
His goals-against average of 2.13 is tied for second in the League with Nashville's Pekka Rinne, while his .920 save percentage is tied for 11th with Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo.
"Corey has given us quality starts every night, and that's really all you can ask," Blackhawks Vice President and General Manager Stan Bowman told NHL.com. "All you want the goalie to do is make all the saves they are supposed to make and be steady so your team has a chance in the last 10 minutes of the game. He's done that all year long for us."
He's also done it, technically speaking, as a rookie -- which could put him into Calder Trophy consideration.
"He's a rookie, but that's a bit of a mislabel for him," Bowman said. "He's had a lot of games as a pro and seen a lot of situations. The only difference is that he's facing different players now in the NHL. There's always a learning curve, but he's well on his way."
Still, did the Hawks see this kind of season coming back when Bowman told fans at the convention that Crawford was ready for a full season in the League?
"No we didn't, to be totally honest," Bowman said. "With a young goalie, the one thing you don't want to do is put too many expectations on his shoulders. We had the feeling that this was likely going to be the case [at some point], but you don't really know until you give him the chance. The way it's gone, Corey's been able to grow into it and grow quietly."
It's actually been a fitting way for Crawford to break into the League full-time, considering his soft-spoken nature. Even while going through the disappointment of being sent back to Rockford a year ago, Crawford internalized his feelings.
"I pretty much just kept it to myself," said Crawford, who's originally from Montreal and switched from forward to goalie when he was young to emulate his idol, Patrick Roy. "I just think you've got to find it in yourself, because your family is not on the ice battling with you. You've got to find it somewhere in yourself to just pick it up and keep working hard, no matter what."
"All you want the goalie to do is make all the saves they are supposed to make and be steady so your team has a chance in the last 10 minutes of the game. He's done that all year long for us." -- Stan Bowman on Corey Crawford
That's exactly what he did for the IceHogs, after giving the sting of being cut a couple days to wear off. Crawford played in 45 games for Rockford last year and went 24-16-2, which impressed his teammates.
His ability to stay focused despite the disappointment also didn't go unnoticed.
"He just needed to look past [getting cut], because that was management's decision," said Hawks forward Bryan Bickell
, who played with Crawford for three seasons in Rockford. "He had no control over that. The only thing he could control was the way he played, and he knew what he needed to do to get here."
Jimmy Howard used that same approach to become the starter for the Detroit Red Wings last season after spending four years with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins. Crawford, though, points to Boston Bruins veteran Tim Thomas as one of his biggest inspirations.
Thomas, 36, played four seasons at the University of Vermont before embarking on a professional career that took him through stints in Finland, Sweden, the ECHL, IHL and AHL before finally sticking with the Bruins for his first full NHL season in 2006-07.
This season, Thomas leads the League in both save percentage (.945) and GAA (1.83).
"Timing is key for some guys, while other guys have to wait a little bit longer," Crawford said. "That's a good test, too -- to see how strong you are mentally. Sometimes guys are good enough, but maybe they just can't stay focused and eventually tail off. Then there's other guys, who keep working hard and never stop. Look at Tim Thomas. He looks like the hardest-working guy in the League and it shows."
Crawford can be put into that category as well. Earlier this season, he was asked if there was anything that he retained from what he went through a year ago. His answer was short, to the point and spoken with conviction.
"Yeah," he said. "Never give up."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent