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Resilient Crawford focused ahead of Winter Classic

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- It's difficult to find a word that adequately describes the season Corey Crawford is having for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Impressive, steady and dazzling could all work for the majority of his outings. In 20 games, Chicago's No.1 goalie is 12-6-2 with a 2.00 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage, and one shutout. He's playing noticeably better under the guidance of first-year Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite, and is a big reason Chicago is leading the NHL in penalty-killing.

"Commend him on getting off to a great start," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of Crawford earlier this season. "His focus has been excellent every day on the ice, the practice days as well, but he really seems like he's concentrating on the next shots, the next situations. His preparation has been excellent."

Crawford's fortunes elsewhere have been just the opposite, which is why words like frustrating, challenging and disappointing could just as easily define Crawford in Chicago's first 35 games.

He would've started the majority of the 14 games he missed with two separate injuries, and the time off allowed backups Antti Raanta and Scott Darling to shine in his place. Raanta has twice fought off impressive bids by Darling to replace him as the primary backup, but the result of that competition opened some eyes to a deep stable of viable goaltending options for the Blackhawks.

In that respect, Chicago is feeling a lot better about its organizational goaltending depth as the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA) nears. Quenneville showed just how confident the Blackhawks are last week, when Crawford was getting to set to return from his second injury.

"The way we're succeeding with our goaltending, we're almost expecting it now," Quenneville said recently. "Game in, game out, the quality of the goaltending we've had has been unbelievable. So, it was almost like, 'OK, when [Crawford] gets back, he gets back.' It's almost like we didn't feel that [urgency] or need to expedite [his] return here, and he was showing patience with it as well."

Crawford lost 3-2 in a nine-round shootout at the Columbus Blue Jackets in his return this past Saturday, and then took the loss Tuesday after being pulled early in a 5-1 loss at home against the Winnipeg Jets.

The game was two days after the Blackhawks learned shocking news about the death of Clint Reif, their 34-year old assistant equipment manager, so Quenneville cut every player some slack. That included Crawford, but the 29-year old goalie might still have to play his way out of the coach's dog house for another reason.

At the time of his second injury, which involved his left leg, Quenneville made it clear he didn't like the cause of it. A misstep by Crawford while leaving a concert during an off day prompted the ailment, which caused him to miss eight games in a two-week stretch.

It put pressure on Raanta and Darling to weather the storm, which they did, but Crawford stewed about his plight while recovering. He detests missing time, and was furious with himself for the accidental misstep. An undisclosed upper-body injury in October had already cost him six games, so it's no surprise Crawford seemed a little cranky in footage from the first two episodes of "EPIX presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic."

It's a good segue into more descriptive words that could be said about Crawford: resilient, determined and even a little self-loathing. Prior to returning against the Blue Jackets, Crawford left no doubt who was starting the next day.

"I'm going to play," he said. "I've been feeling really good in practice and working really hard. The quickness is there, the quick feet and quick recoveries to rebounds is there too. Right now, I feel good."

The Blackhawks feel the same seeing him back in his usual spot on the ice.

No matter what's happened with injuries, Crawford's teammates have come to expect a high level of play from him.

"He's rock-solid pretty much every time he's in there," right wing Patrick Kane said. "He's a very confident goalie and we have all the confidence in the world in him too."

Crawford, who will turn 30 on Jan. 31, is looking to rebuild his own confidence. His six-year contract extension, worth a reported $36 million, started this season, and he's intent on proving the $6 million charge against the NHL salary cap is worth it.

He's not daydreaming much about playing the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park on New Year's Day, or thinking about sharing more ice time than usual with Raanta.

"I'm thinking about the first shift, the first shot [of a game], that's all I can worry about," Crawford said recently. "I don't want to get ahead of myself."

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