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Crawford out to avoid sophomore slump

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- The question is rooted in a statistical comparison and Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford is probably getting tired of hearing it.

Simply put, there are some who aren't entirely convinced that Crawford can elude the so-called "sophomore slump" after an eye-opening rookie season last year – in which he took over for Marty Turco mid-season as the starter and never looked back.

More specifically, however, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason is now being used as a comparison for Crawford – after Mason burst onto the scene in the 2009 season as a rookie and put up impressive numbers. The next season, Mason came back as the unquestioned starter and saw his stats take a big turn for the worse.

Is Crawford in for a similar letdown? Not if you ask him or his teammates and coaches.


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"I want to get better every year," Crawford said. "That's my goal. I'm going to use last year and the experience to help me. I think the more experience I get … I get better. I'm ready to go."

He looked like it on Friday night in the Hawks' first home pre-season game against the Washington Capitals, which Chicago won 3-2 in a packed United Center. Crawford stopped 24 of 26 shots and looked pretty sharp overall – playing all three periods.

Still, until he does it in the regular season, there will still be doubters out thinking about Mason's sophomore struggles when they see Crawford in the net. It's understandable when you look at the numbers.

Mason and Crawford both won 33 games in their rookie seasons. Mason had a 2.29 goals-against average, while Crawford's 2.30 was just a tick higher. Mason's save percentage was .916, while Crawford's .917 was about the same.

The next season for Mason, who's still just 23, was an uphill battle.

His GAA ballooned to 3.06, his save percentage dropped to .901 and he won 13 less games. Mason, however, was only 22 years old at the time. Crawford, meanwhile, is 25 and spent five seasons toiling in the American Hockey League before getting his big break in the NHL.

That plus a good working relationship with Blackhawks goaltending coach Stephane Waite are two reasons Chicago coach Joel Quenneville is so confident that what happened to Mason won't befall Crawford – who's unflappable self-confidence is possibly the biggest reason to believe he's no fluke.

This is, after all, the same guy who started 27 straight regular-season games during a heated playoff chase last year and then started all seven games of a bitter first-round loss to the Vancouver Canucks.  

"He really shouldered a lot for us last year," Quenneville said. "He was consistent in big games and big settings. Nothing changes his approach and you've got to commend him for doing that. We see him only growing from those levels. He can continue to improve and hopefully elevate his game to become a top goaltender in our League."

In order to do that, both Crawford and Waite identified quickness as one area to work on in the off-season. At 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, he's got good size and can make himself look real big in the net. His position is usually solid, as well.

If he can add quickness as one of his strengths, there shouldn't be as much concern about what happened to Mason happening to Crawford.

"I've got to be a little quicker," Crawford said. "Mostly you want to improve everything (in the summer), but quickness was one of the things we talked about. That's just going to improve my game. Puck-handling, too, but quickness was number one on the list."

It was still tops on the list after four days of training camp, which at times were frustrating days because he felt that quickness wasn't there yet. It eventually returned as he faced a lot of shots in practices. He's got just the one pre-season game under his belt thus far, but should get a couple more full-game starts in next week.

Otherwise, the guy his teammates call "Crow" is just ready for his chance to prove the "sophomore slump" is a myth when it comes to him. He's also eager to prove the Hawks made a wise decision to give him a three-year contract extension in the off season to become the organization's top backstop.

"There is a little bit different feeling," he said of entering training camp for the first time as an NHL starting goalie. "It's nice to know you have a three-year deal coming into camp, but at the same time I'm so focused to earn that ice time and show the guys – even the new guys – that you're the guy to gain their confidence."

His play against the Canucks in the post-season last spring was a great first step, and that's the one area in which Crawford's comparison to Mason takes a detour. As a rookie, Mason got torched in the playoffs in losing all four games in a sweep that knocked Columbus out of the playoffs.

Crawford, meanwhile, posted solid numbers in a seven-game classic that almost wound up with the Hawks coming back from three games down to win. Crawford was also outstanding in the final game, which was won by Vancouver in overtime after a bad turnover in the Hawks zone led to Alexander Burrows' game-winner.

Realistically, had it not been for Crawford's work in goal for most of that game, it never would've gotten to overtime. Things like that, Crawford said, should be the perfect antidote to any sophomore slump.

"I think getting one (playoff) game is huge, so that whole series means a lot going forward," he said. "I'm going to take that and use it. Obviously it wasn't the result I wanted, but I'm going to use it for this coming season."
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