With a 2-0 lead over the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Semifinals, and having won their previous four playoff tilts prior to that, the Chicago Blackhawks appear to be well positioned to make yet another deep run toward a potential Stanley Cup title here in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They've received some solid performances up and down the board, but the one key that has been right in the middle of all of it has been that of Corey Crawford.
For whatever reason, Corey Crawford has never actually received the appreciation he deserves, whether in the Windy City or on a national scale. Perhaps it was because he was tasked with following up fan favorite Antti Niemi, who ended Chicago's Cup drought. It may be due to the fact that no one is ready to accept the fact that the Hawks have found some stability between the pipes for the first time in a couple of decades, as nonsensical as that may sound.
Whatever the reason may be, Crawford has certainly gotten something of a raw deal, both from a local and a national perspective. The guy led the Hawks to a Stanley Cup with brilliant play last season, probably deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy, and many still scoffed at the idea of him receiving a long-term contract, just as he did when Chicago signed him to a six-year extension with a $6.5 million cap hit.
That cap hit that he'll carry going into next year, and beyond, is the league's eighth highest cap hit for a goaltender. Netminders that rank higher than him in terms of the financials include Cam Ward, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne, none of which are currently suiting up for a playoff team. Most importantly, Cam Ward is making more money than Corey Crawford. Of those that make more than Crawford, only Tuukka Rask (2.04) and Jonathan Quick (2.07) posted a better goals against average than he did, finishing at 2.26.
But it's during these playoffs where we've seen Crawford really start to shine again and throw a middle finger toward the rest of the mainstream hockey world. His 1.87 GAA is second only to Rask among starting goaltenders in the postseason, with his save percentage (currently sitting at .936) ranking behind only Rask and Steve Mason, the latter of which will be watching the remainder of the postseason from home. Even more impressive, his save percentage on the penalty kill is at .962, which is second to Mason (who was at 1.000 vs. a putrid New York power play) and almost 30 points ahead of the next closest mark, which is Jonathan Quick at .938.
Crawford didn't have the most terrific of regular seasons, but when it comes down to it, does it really matter? After all, both fans and national media are now lauding Bryan Bickell for a fantastic postseason following a subpar regular season. Can't we do the same for Crawford? He probably isn't going to win a Vezina Trophy any time soon, but if the Blackhawks make another stellar run for a third Stanley Cup in the last five seasons, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone more deserving of the Conn Smythe than him. Again.
It's unlikely we'll reach a point where the critics of Crawford simply slink away and allow the rest of us to marvel at his postseason play without any sort of distraction, especially with that contract that kicks into effect next year. But when it comes down to it, there are very few active netminders that any reasonable individual would have going into a playoff series over Corey Crawford.