CHICAGO – As a kid growing up in Montreal, Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford never imagined that he would become any team’s No. 1 goaltender in the playoffs.
Well, almost never.
“Maybe you dream about it a little bit,” Crawford said, “that you’ll play in the NHL and in the playoffs and win Stanley Cups. But you never really think it’s going to happen until it does.”
It’s happening all over again.
Crawford, 27, will start his second playoff series today when the Hawks visit the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. The sixth-seeded Hawks went 1-2-1 against the third-seeded Coyotes during the regular season, but are favored to win the series because of their roster depth and playoff experience.
Those who predict the Coyotes will advance point to goaltending.
Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith emerged as one of the best netminders in the NHL during the regular season. He went 38-18-10 with a 2.21 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage, and he limited the Hawks to four goals in three games.
“He’s playing really well, and he’s had our number,” Hawks forward Marian Hossa said. “With a good goalie like that, you have to have a guy in front of him because whatever he can see, he can catch. We want to make sure we get traffic.”
Crawford chuckled when he was asked about the challenges of going up against Smith. He guessed that he had been asked the same question about 10 times in the days between the Hawks’ regular-season finale and today’s playoff opener.
“That makes no difference in my game at all,” Crawford said of the matchup. “I’m going to go out there and play the same way. Whatever he’s done before, that’s fine and that’s good for him, but we’ll worry about our game. …
“I know I’m not scoring on him, unless I fire a lucky one from 200 feet.”
Meanwhile, the Hawks know that Crawford can shine in the playoffs.
Last season, Crawford helped the Hawks to battle back from a 3-0 deficit to the Vancouver Canucks to force a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. He posted a 2.21 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in seven postseason starts.
This season, Crawford endured several bumpy stretches before winning eight of his final 11 games. He lost the No. 1 job twice to Ray Emery, but regained it both times and finished with a 30-17-7 record, a 2.72 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage.
Hawks blue-liner Duncan Keith defended his goaltender in more ways than one.
“Corey is a good goalie, too,” Keith said after addressing a question about Smith. “He played well for us in the playoffs last year. So, we can count on that again this year.”
Although Smith’s regular-season statistics are more impressive than Crawford’s, experience could play a significant role in the postseason. Smith never has been a No. 1 starter in the playoffs and has 120 career postseason minutes in net, while Crawford learned to deal with the scrutiny during last season’s series against Vancouver.
This time around, Crawford said, he felt more prepared and more confident.
“It’s a lot different,” Crawford said. “Having that experience I had last year makes a huge difference. You know how to control those emotions or ups and downs a little bit better. You get a feel for the pace. You just know what to expect.”
As for anyone who expects Crawford to wilt under the pressure, he disagrees.
“I don’t see pressure at all,” Crawford said. “I just see it as fun hockey and a fun time of year.”