CHICAGO | There was a time when goaltender Corey Crawford tried to be one of the boys in the Blackhawks locker room.
Before games, he’d be in the hallway, part of the group of seven or eight who kick a soccer ball around, trying to keep it in the air as long as possible. It’s something to keep the coordination sharp in a game where reaction time is measured in thousandths of seconds.
But, even though a goaltender needs to be quick when making a kick save or lurching to one side or the other, it wasn’t the best preparation.
And it was 180 degrees and a generation removed from the solitude Tony Esposito demanded in his day. The Hawks’ most recent Hall of Fame goaltender had many quirks to his pregame preparation, including not talking to anyone but the trainer – and then only to ask for balm to rub on his body – and also finding a dark corner of the Hawks’ old basement lair in Chicago Stadium to be alone until it was time for the pre-game warmup.
Esposito might as well have been a recluse. Crawford, in contrast, was Mr. Congeniality.
No longer. A couple of bad goals that cost the Hawks playoff games in last year’s first round against Phoenix convinced Crawford that hanging in the hallway was the worst way to mentally prepare for 100 mile-per-hour pucks.
This year, after consultation with goaltending coach Stephane Waite, he’s using the Esposito Theory. Before games, he goes into the gym in the Hawks’ locker room area and shuts the door. Corey Crawford is alone with his thoughts.
“I thought I was focused last year, but I wasn’t quite there,” Crawford said. “Focus has been a huge part of it. This year I’ve paid a little bit more attention to that.”
Crawford’s goals-against average in the 2011-12 season was 2.72, well above the 2.30 he recorded in 2010-11, and hugging the league average of 2.74 goals per game. In both cases, he played 57 games.
A superior goaltender should be well under the league average.
Through Saturday, and including Thursday night’s overtime loss to St. Louis, Crawford’s at 2.01, fifth in the NHL behind Ottawa’s Chris Anderson and Boston’s Tuukka Rask. (Teammate Ray Emery was fourth, at 1.95, entering Sunday's game against Nashville.)
A year-to-year improvement of three-quarters of a goal per game is remarkable. While the Hawks’ improvement on defense is partially due to Johnny Oduya’s presence for a full season, Crawford has done much of it on his own.
This is not to say Crawford is now perfect. While he was betrayed by his defense against the Blues, St. Louis finally prevailing 4-3 in a shootout, Crawford allowed a howler last Monday night that brought Nashville back into the game. He failed to completely cover the puck early in the third period with the Hawks leading 2-0 and the Predators having absolutely no momentum.
One poke of the puck by David Legwand, and Nashville was on the scoreboard and back in the game. The Hawks deflated like a pinata, and Crawford knew why.
“I obviously made a bad play there,” Crawford said, refusing to blame the referees for not whistling the puck dead. “A brutal bounce and a brutal goal, really. But I was able to calm myself and get back into the game.”
Even as Nashville did. The Predators, after mustering only 11 shots in the first 40 minutes, took six shots in the next three-and-a-half, and rookie Taylor Beck’s was the sixth. Crawford muffed the slow roller and the game was tied.
But there the bleeding stopped, where it might have continued last year. Again, mental preparation was the key. Crawford has what might be called a quick eraser in his mind.
“I was able to erase it pretty quickly,” Crawford said of the first goal, “and make some good saves.”
He did the same thing after Beck’s score, stopping Nashville’s last six shots, plus four of the five in the shootout following five minutes of sudden-death overtime.
“That’s something he’d worked on with Steph, that mentally, technically, all those things,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “You’re only playing the next shot. You’ve got to refocus and move ahead. Being confident is something as well, but I think the consistency of the goaltending this year has been one of our strengths, and that’s part of it.”
While Emery, with 13 wins in 14 decisions entering Sunday's game with Nashville, has been near-perfect, Crawford’s the No. 1 goaltender on the Hawks. Barring injury or slump, he’ll probably be the man in the playoffs, though Quenneville wouldn't make that commitment on Sunday.
Whereas last year there was some off-the-record grumbling about his playoff miscues from other players, this year his teammates sing his praises.
“Even (March 31), a 7-1 game, he played unbelievable,” Patrick Kane said of Crawford’s performance in Detroit. “The ice was tilted. They had more shots than us, maybe even more chances. I thought the difference was the goaltending.”