Crawford works through struggles, regains place in Hawks' net
CHICAGO -- The easiest way to tell when Corey Crawford is focused is just to watch the back of the net.
If no pucks are making the twine behind him ripple, odds are he's dialed in with a razor-sharp focus that lets the second-year Chicago Blackhawks goalie see the whole picture in front of him.
"Reading the play and seeing passing options and reading all that stuff ... everything comes together when you're focused and ready," Crawford told NHL.com on Friday. "I'm so focused [right now]. It just seems like right when I get in there the puck looks two or three times as big. That just comes with focus and preparation."
It's paid off over the past five games. Crawford has stopped 102 of the last 107 shots he's faced in five straight appearances -- all wins -- including 23 saves on Wednesday to beat the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 at United Center.
Crawford, in fact, appears back to the form that earned him the starting job as a rookie and then helped him garner a three-year contract extension in the offseason to be the Hawks' starter.
Only the remaining seven games of the regular season plus the playoffs will determine that for sure, however, and he hasn't always been this focused. In order to be "back to himself," Crawford first needed to be off his game -- which has happened several times in what's been a topsy-turvy season.
In fact, Crawford has seen the starting job handed to veteran Ray Emery at two separate points and wound up earning it back both times. Emery has played a No. 1 goalie's share for two six-game stretches before his own inconsistencies led to Crawford getting another shot, but he originally came to the Hawks on a tryout contract and had to make the roster in training camp.
Crawford, on the other hand, earned the starter's role this year with a strong showing as a rookie -- including almost leading Chicago past the rival Canucks in what turned out to be a classic first round playoff series that lasted seven games.
He made his 6-foot-2, 208-pound frame look huge and at times seemed like a red brick wall for the Hawks. Then things changed this season. Crawford started giving up a few goals he probably should've stopped, opponents started taking advantage of his side-to-side coverage and over-aggressiveness and he also couldn't find the off valve in a couple of ugly blowout losses.
Both trips to Edmonton ended badly and that wasn't the only place where Crawford was yanked from the net by Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. Crawford has been pulled six times, with his most recent coming Feb. 29 at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In that game, Crawford allowed three first-period goals on just 10 shots and was replaced by Emery -- who picked up the comeback win -- to start the second period. Six games later, the same thing happened to Emery, with Crawford relieving in a big win against St. Louis.
He hasn't left the net since, which shouldn't be a fatigue concern considering his five straight starts are a fraction of the 27 straight Crawford started to end last season before playing all seven playoff games.
"It's a season where I've been pulled the most ever in my career, so those games are tough," Crawford said. "People just look at stats and when you get pulled that many times it's going to kill your stats. I just try to come back and play hard and focus on winning hockey games. I'm more worried about my record than stats."
His record is 27-16-5 heading into a game Sunday against the Nashville Predators, while his secondary stats have improved quite a bit in the past five games. Crawford's 2.75 goals-against average is on the way down after surpassing the 3.00 threshold, while his save percentage is back up to .904 after dipping into the sub-90 percent range.
It's reflective of both his and Chicago's turbulent season. When he's been on, Crawford has usually been great and so have the Hawks. When he's been bad, it's gotten real ugly for both he and his team.
The bright side is that Crawford has come back fighting after every struggle.
"You've got to commend him on how he is, whether he's playing or practicing," Quenneville said. "He's on the ice every day. He's proven that he can be a good goalie. He's got all the attributes you look for in a quality goaltender, so it's just getting back to the basics and reassure yourself that, 'Hey, we're moving forward, so just fight and battle and just find the next puck.'"
That, in essence, is what has helped Crawford bounce back.
He's worked on adjusting to certain in-game situations and plays with Hawks goalie coach Stephane Waite -- along with choosing when to be aggressive and when to sit back -- but ultimately his recent success stems from a simple notion.
"What all that talk and all that technique really comes down to is just, 'Go out and stop the puck,' right?'" Crawford told NHL.com earlier this season. "You can make it as complicated as you want, but pretty much we're just giving ourselves a better opportunity to make that save."
It's dealing with those times when he doesn't make that save, however, that have given Crawford the most trouble. In Chicago's second trip to Edmonton, things were OK until Crawford let in a second goal on an unscreened wrist shot without much open net to target.
After that, Crawford seemed a little rattled and then got riddled until he was pulled after letting in five goals against 28 shots.
The same scenario could've played out in this past game against Vancouver, when Jannik Hansen's wrister beat Crawford just 27 seconds into the game. Instead, Crawford regrouped and played one of his best games to pick up the win in OT. He didn't let another puck get past him and stopped 14 shots over the first 15 minutes of the third -- including a number of tips and deflections that changed directions sharply.
He kept stonewalling the Canucks in overtime until rookie Andrew Shaw scored the game-winning goal against Roberto Luongo. On Friday, Quenneville pointed to Crawford's resolve in that game when asked why he believes his goalie is back to being as solid as last year.
"I thought a good illustration was last game," Quenneville said. "It was Vancouver ... game was on the line, 1-1. [They had] high-quality chances in the slot and [he] responded very well. In all his games here recently, games are on the line and he looks big and solid and seems confident. I think his moving and rebound control has been real good, as well."
It's a credit to Crawford for not melting down during this roller-coater of a season, but also to his goalie coach. Waite was unavailable for comment, but Crawford said he deserves a lot of recognition.
"He's been great," Crawford said of his goaltending coach. "He's not a guy who says you've got to do it his way or else there is no way. He's easy to work with."
Crawford also speaks fluent French being from Montreal, so it's nice for the two to have that in common.
"We do mostly talk in French," Crawford told NHL.com. "Once in awhile we will throw some English in there, but I don't think his English is all that good. He's more of a laid back guy than most people think. It takes a while for him to open up and joke around, but he's an easy guy to work with. He doesn't force anything on you."
Meanwhile, Crawford feels like he's also learned from his struggles.
"I never got down on myself," Crawford said. "I just kept playing. The season's not over after one game where you have a bad start or it wasn't the best effort that you can give. You've just got to come back the next game and worry about what you've got to do to win a hockey game."
He's done that now more times than he'd care to remember and hopes to become a better goalie for it. He can also tell you how much is truly stings to get pulled and what it takes to bounce back.
"They are tough [games] to come back from, but at the same time you are still playing at this level and in this League and it's fun," said Crawford, who spent five seasons in the American Hockey League before his first full season in the NHL last year. "You just have to forget about it and keep playing hard. No one's going to feel sorry for you. No one's going to cry in the corner with you, so ... just wipe it off and keep going."