When the puck first dropped last October, Corey Crawford was an afterthought. The Blackhawks parted with Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi and thought they found his successor in 35-year-old Marty Turco.
Oops. Can't win 'em all. Just as the Hawks learned when Niemi ripped the job away from Cristobal Huet, who signed a four-year, $22 million contract several seasons ago.
Good thing for the Hawks that Crawford has responded to the challenge. He not only is beating the opponents, he's surviving the guys who wear the same sweaters in front of him.
Crawford, who tied a franchise rookie record with eight straight victories between Feb. 20 and March 5, bailed out the Hawks again Friday night in Columbus in a 4-3 shootout victory over the depleted Blue Jackets. Instead of regaining their composure after grueling, physical battles with the Red Wings and Bruins earlier in the week, the Blackhawks played their dumbest game of the year.
But the 26-year-old Montreal native demonstrated poise, stopping 31 shots — including many quality scoring chances — and all three shootout attempts. Because the Hawks had six penalties for 14 minutes in the second period, Crawford faced 14 short-handed shots. He stopped all but one.
Bad time on the calendar to be playing stupid. Good time to have Crawford, a rookie, performing like an unflappable veteran.
"He settles the team down when they're running around in their own end, which is often lately," television analyst Steve Konroyd said.
Crawford's numbers for the year are solid (31-16-5, .918 saves percentage, 2.29 GAA, 4 shutouts), but don't reflect accurately just how valuable he has been during this stretch run.
He made 33 saves — many of them breathtaking — in the Hawks 3-2 overtime victory Monday at Joe Louis Arena. He stopped a career-high 38 shots in a tough loss in Washington last month.
Very quietly, Crawford has been one of the most consistent bright spots this season. He has proven that despite his inexperience, he's up to the test, just as Niemi was last year.
Now, maybe, Crawford can take it even a step further.
Next time two or three opponents are taking liberties with Jonathan Toews, the choir boy-faced netminder should shed the gear, skate the length of the ice and defend his captain.
Nobody else appeared willing to engage Friday in Columbus when Toews was being mugged after a goal-mouth scramble in front of Mathieu Garon. I saw Toews' tag team endorsement partner — Kane — skating back to the bench during the scrum.
Perhaps Crawford could do it all. He has done everything else that has been asked of him.
Patrick Kane is a scum bag. I'm sorry. And to not stand up and defend your teammate, your captain? I detect a little jealousy on his part because he probably feels like he's the better player and should thus be captain.
Sorry guys. Toews is the best player on the team, followed by Patrick Sharp. Kane hasn't really come into his own yet, and that, along with his character issues off the ice, are the reasons why I will never buy a jersey of his.