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Crawford, Howard seek next step in playoff careers

by Corey Masisak

CHICAGO -- Team success can go a long way toward cementing a player's legacy, especially if that player is either the goaltender or captain.

That may seem unfair at times, but it is part of the culture of hockey. One long playoff run can change the perception of a player and a team. And in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a long playoff run usually means reaching the second half of the tournament. Sure, careers are defined by hoisting the Stanley Cup or reaching the Stanley Cup Final, but winning two rounds in a postseason is incredibly hard, and being part of hockey's final four has a lasting impact.

What is the primary difference in the careers of, say, Joe Thornton and Alex Ovechkin, to certain people in the hockey community? Neither has played in a Cup Final, but Thornton's San Jose Sharks have reached the conference finals twice while Ovechkin's Washington Capitals have yet to breach that barrier.

It's a big reason Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals at United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS) could be an important marker in the careers of the two goaltenders involved. The captains of these teams, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings, have both won a Conn Smythe Trophy and led their clubs through long playoff journeys.

But Chicago's Corey Crawford and Detroit's Jimmy Howard have not. Both are starting goaltenders for elite franchises that are trying to return to previous levels of success. This game is their chance to be a part of that.

"It's going to be a blast. Starting from warm-ups, you know the crowd is going to be loud. It's going to be a great atmosphere," Howard said Tuesday afternoon. "You can't get ahead of yourself, you can't try to accomplish everything on one shift or one save. It's going to be a grind out there [Wednesday] night, it's going to be a battle, and you just have to stay within yourself."

Howard and Crawford have had incredibly similar careers to this point. They were drafted 12 picks apart in 2003 -- Chicago tabbed Crawford at No. 52 in the second round and Detroit selected Howard with the 64th pick. After Pittsburgh selected Marc-Andre Fleury at No. 1, they were the second and third goaltenders picked in what is considered among the best drafts in NHL history.

While Fleury shot to the NHL almost immediately, both Crawford and Howard took years to develop. Crawford spent two more years in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before playing five seasons in the American Hockey League. Howard went back to the University of Maine for two more years before spending four seasons in the AHL.

Both spent years as the "goalie of the future" for their respective teams only to become the goalie of the present the year after a trip to the Stanley Cup Final -- Howard in 2009-10 for Detroit and Crawford in 2010-11 for Chicago.

Any lists of the NHL's best goaltenders over the past two seasons likely have Crawford and Howard ranked near one another. And both have probably risen up those rankings thanks to a great 2012-13 regular season and strong numbers to this point in the playoffs.

Jimmy Howard
Goalie - DET
GAA: 2.49 | SVP: 0.923
Game 7 on Wednesday night could be a separation point.

Howard was fantastic in the first half of this series, playing at a Conn Smythe-contending level to help his Red Wings earn a 3-1 series lead. But Crawford has had the upper hand in the past two contests, including a sparkling performance in Game 6 despite giving up easily the worst goal of the series on a knuckling shot from Detroit's Joakim Andersson.

"Any time you have a goaltender, and I'm sure they feel the same about Crawford, that's going to give you a chance, that is what you want," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "I've had [Jean-Sebastien] Giguere and [Chris Osgood] and [Dominik] Hasek. When your goalie is good, even when they give up a bad goal, you don't think about it. When your goalie is not good, every [goal] that goes in you analyze. It is way more fun this way [with a good goalie], so let's just go play."

NHL Network and CBC analyst Kevin Weekes wrote in a column for at the start of this round that Howard and Crawford might be the League's two most-improved goaltenders this season. And the better they've played, the more the phrase "underrated" has been used in referring to them.

Corey Crawford
Goalie - CHI
GAA: 1.78 | SVP: 0.935
Both could be in contention to represent their country in the 2014 Winter Olympics should the NHL, NHL Players Association and International Ice Hockey Federation reach an agreement to have NHL players in Sochi, Russia. A sterling performance in a pressure-packed contest like this Game 7 could certainly help their chances.

Crawford and Howard have been putting up elite numbers in these playoffs and could cement a place among the elite players at their position with a deep postseason run.

"We perceive [Crawford] to be one of the top goalies in the League in this dressing room, so that is for [the media] to discuss," Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "I think it would be huge for him and for his confidence. I think since he's been here, we've lost in the first round twice. And now [we're] into the second round, so one more round would just keep building confidence and do nothing but help him even more mentally. He's been great for us all year. We have lots of confidence in him and know he'll be there for us [Wednesday] night."

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