Blackhawks Goalie Corey Crawford Finally Gets The Chance To Prove He Is NHL Material

Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks stops a shot by Steve Sullivan of the Nashville Predators at the United Center on October 13 2010 in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Corey Crawford has paid his dues in the minors and now he's showing what great goaltending is all about.

The first time I saw Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford play in person was January 22, 2006, at the United Center. He came into the game in the third period to relieve Adam Munro. I had a seat in the Club Level, but had friends sitting ten rows behind Crawford and went down to ice level to watch the kid play in his first NHL game. I was impressed. At a time when goalies seemed to be "lazy," Crawford always had his eye on the puck, moving with it from the faceoff rather than waiting for the puck to cross center ice like most of his counterparts. In that game he made seven saves and allowed no goals; unfortunately, Adam Munro (remember him? Hardly anyone does -- he played in only 17 NHL games) gave up three goals and the Hawks lost that game 3-2. I told everyone he was someone to watch in the future. Crawford finally got his first start on Feb. 2, 2006, against the Blues in St. Louis. He allowed five goals with 29 saves in a 6-5 shootout loss. Only two other players from that awful 65-point team in the 2005-06 season are now with the Hawks: Crawford, Duncan Keith and Jassen Cullimore, the latter recently returned. It wasn't until March 5, 2008 that Crawford registered his first NHL win (and shutout) against the Anaheim Ducks.

While it appeared the Hawks saw tremendous value in Crawford, he remained mostly in the AHL. He signed a one-year contract on July 21, 2008, and was called up from Rockford on Nov. 28 when Nikolai Khabibulin was injured. He was backup to Cristobal Huet. He made his first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance on May 24, 2009, in the second period of the Western Conference Finals against the Detroit Red Wings, but was then replaced in the third period by Huet.

But even with his previous experience, last year the soon-to-be Stanley Cup winning Hawks decided their two goalies would be Huet and Antti Niemi. Crawford found himself back in the minors with the Rockford Icehogs. Even so, he was recalled from Rockford on April 24, as third goalie.

Salary caps take a toll on Stanley Cup winning teams in particular. In the off season, the Hawks lost Huet to the Swiss League and decided not to make Niemi an offer. Niemi eventually signed with the San Jose Sharks. The Hawks signed Marty Turco, a veteran goaltender, as their primary goalie, making Crawford backup goalie. But something happened on the way to this year's "Circus Road Trip" and Crawford found himself starting in goal, on the road, while Turco was benched. Crawford is credited with three of the four wins on this trip. Did this happen a year ago with Niemi? Joel Quenneville is not afraid to play the guys who help with the most wins, and Crawford has been solid in goal on this road trip.

Crawford, affectingly known by his teammates as Crawf (which is said to be branded on his helmet), was drafted 52nd overall by the Hawks in the second round of the 2003 draft. The 25-year-old lefty was born Dec. 31, 1984, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and played junior hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Crawford has four straight wins going into tomorrow night's game against the St. Louis Blues at the United Center. Will he be in goal again? It's hard to know right now, but Quenneville has said Turco has known all along that Crawford would probably see back-to-back starts. If the Hawks are smart, they'll let the home crowd see just how good Crawford is.

This is a kid to watch. Trust me. I know my goalies.

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