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Goaltender Matchup: Inside Blackhawks' Crawford

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com

Goaltending plays an integral part in the Stanley Cup Playoffs so NHL.com broke down the Stanley Cup Final battle between Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks and Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Today the focus is on Crawford.

Much like many goaltending coaches do before a series, NHL.com correspondent Kevin Woodley, the managing editor of InGoal Magazine, charted every goal scored with the help of a program from Double Blue Sport Analytics. Regular-season goals were recorded in their original Save Review System, and playoff goals, including how they were scored, were tracked in the soon-to-launch SRS 2.0. The graphics showing where goals went in and shots were taken from are nice, but the real value is analyzing the plays that led to them and whether they reveal strengths, weaknesses and tendencies that can be targeted.

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

OVERVIEW

Crawford has come a long way since playing for current Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean a decade ago with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He has since found a good balance between the technical, "blocking" foundation that defined him coming into the NHL and the reactive athleticism he tried too hard at times to show off during his second season.

The temptation remains to dismiss him as the product of a great team even after winning the Stanley Cup in 2013 and getting to Game 7 of the Western Conference Final in 2014, especially after he lost the starting job early in the Western Conference First Round against the Nashville Predators. But coming off his toughest season in terms of quality scoring chances, Crawford has bounced back yet again to backstop the Blackhawks into his second Cup Final.

When he's on: At his best, Crawford is reacting from his skates and moving into shots in straight lines with both his feet and hands, starting near the edges of his crease and holding his ground.

When he's off: Crawford reacts from his knees, defaulting down to more of a blocking butterfly before reaching out to perimeter shots with his legs and back up and out with his hands, a costly delay.

GOAL TRENDS

The regular-season glove numbers still draw the most attention given how much was made of Crawford's glove hand en route to the 2013 Stanley Cup. However, the total goals scored high to mid-glove are down from 44 percent last season to 30 percent this season, and a lot were among the 56 percent of goals that came from high-quality chances in the middle of the slot, where goalies can't be solely faulted.

There are style trends that account for the glove side totals as well as the high number of low-blocker goals, but most butterfly goalies get beat more in these areas, and Crawford's playoff goal breakdown (right) shows an equal number beating him mid-to-high on the glove and blocker side so far in the playoffs. Short of a save percentage on each side it's hard to say either spot is targeted.

If there's been a measurable difference in Crawford's performance as the playoffs have gone on, it's how much harder opponents have had to work to score, especially in the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks.

Of the 16 goals he gave up prior to that series, only one was the result of a screen, two came on deflections and seven involved lateral movement. Against the Ducks, 10 goals included a screen, six were tipped and 14 forced him to move laterally, including nine passes. There were also seven plays across the "Royal Road," an imaginary line former NHL goalie and MSG Network analyst Steve Valiquette identified that splits the middle of the zone below the top of the faceoff circles. Scoring chances increase anytime a play moves across the Royal Road.

In then out: There are two habits that explain many of the high glove and low blocker goals against Crawford, and both were a factor in the 10 clean shot goals he has given up in the playoffs.

The first plays a role on both sides: defaulting into a tight block and pulling the hands in as he drops to his knees before reaching back up or out. It's a costly delay most likely to occur on plays closer to the net and from further out when he's struggling, including the goal by Nashville's Colin Wilson to open Crawford's 2015 playoffs.

Pulling off: The second is a tendency to pull off shots, particularly on the glove side and low on the blocker side. It starts with his head tracking up and over his shoulders, which pulls his torso off shots on the glove side, actually turning out of the save space at times. He's certainly not the only NHL goaltender that does it, but it also limits his reach on the blocker side while turning the blocker over so the front of it is almost parallel to the puck the further he has to extend it.

The Ducks' second goal in Game 1 is a perfect illustration on the glove side. Despite getting caught on his post after reaching to deflect a pass out from behind the net, Crawford was still in decent position when the puck goes straight to Kyle Palmieri. Watching replays from behind Palmieri, the shot is headed towards Crawford's left shoulder, but instead of tracking down into the puck, he comes up off it as he tries to pull his glove up late, actually moving out of the way.

Make him move: Both habits seem to be exacerbated by lateral movement, explaining why 58 percent of the goals in the regular season came on plays that forced Crawford to move side to side. It doesn't need to be a complete turn either: 39 percent were across the Royal Road. In the playoffs so far, 57 percent of the goals involved lateral movement, but 27 percent across the Royal Road.

Post play problems: Crawford used to get caught on his skates on plays from below the goal line, which left him caught in transition and beat by low shots several times last season and in the playoffs. This year he's using a reverse-VH technique on plays below the goal line, dropping the short-side skate and pad on the ice and sealing the post by leaning the upper body into it.

Crawford has struggled with his execution, however. A tendency to drop into reverse-VH prematurely cost him on a high short-side shot by Wilson from just above the goal line in the first round, and Ryan Kesler beat him from a similarly bad angle in Game 7 against the Ducks. In both cases Crawford went into the reverse-VH early, and because he does so with his skate on the post rather than inside it, the amount he has to lean back over his leg to seal the post doesn't let him stay tall enough to close the gap under the crossbar.

All three goals in Game 1 of the second round against the Minnesota Wild came on plays from below the goal line. On the first two Crawford was slow coming off his posts, in part because he leaned so hard into them, and on the third goal he came off his post early and opened up the short side.

The above-mentioned Palmieri goal in Game 1 also started with a post play, one of three times the Ducks converted a play from below the goal line, including another from Kesler to spark three quick goals in Game 4. Tampa Bay has plenty of players skilled enough to put the puck into small holes, so don't be surprised if the sharp-angle attacks continue.

Longer rebounds: Crawford wears pads designed to produce more active rebounds, which he likes because it buys him more time to recover laterally. It wasn't enough to prevent 26 percent of regular-season goals against him from being scored on rebounds, but the key is recognizing they will come off his pads harder and not getting caught too close, which may work to Crawford's advantage in the playoffs with players fighting so hard to get to the net.

Ducks forward Nate Thompson scored on a longer rebound off the rush for the third goal of Game 1 of the conference final, but only after the puck first bounced past Palmieri, who got caught in too close. And for those pointing to Matt Beleskey's overtime winner in Game 5 off a rebound, a closer look at replays show that bouncing rebound came down off the bottom of Crawford's blocker and not straight out off his pad.

Straight drops no more? Some goalies push laterally into shots from farther out, a habit with positives and negatives, but Crawford has typically been more of a straight dropper, making small adjustments and shifts and/or leaning his torso behind shots to control rebounds. He rarely slid into saves.

There are lots of positives to this practice, like not opening up holes by moving too much or getting caught in motion on change-of-direction tips, but it can create back-door passing options that strand Crawford atop the crease on the initial shooter. It's a trend that shows itself in the 31 regular-season goals along the ice to either side, often tap-ins. There were also times it left him stuck passively behind screens like on a Roman Josi shot in Game 2 against Nashville, or reaching on long shots which leaves him exposed to even slight deflections like the Wilson tip past an outstretched glove in Game 1.

There has been more movement into shots from Crawford as these playoffs went on, however, with mixed results. He's been caught moving one way on deflections going the other, including a Corey Perry tip in Game 2 against Anaheim and Kesler's bouncing deflection of a shot that appeared to be headed wide in Game 5. Of course, that last play is not the kind you draw up, but if there's one trend that might be exploitable it's the tendency to look around screens on the short side and the slide into the middle on the release, which was a factor in Perry's goal and Beleskey's final goal of the Western Conference Final.

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