DETROIT – Not all that long ago, Corey Crawford was the whipping boy for all that ailed the Blackhawks.
These days, he's among the reasons why the Hawks are the NHL's best team.
On Sunday, before the Hawks extended their season-long scoring streak to 22 games, Joel Quenneville characterized his team's goalies as consistent. It's a tag that never would have been tied to Crawford by the end of last season when Quenneville suggested Crawford's struggles could be linked to some sort of sophomore slump.
The complaints lodged by fans were almost impossible to ignore. But Crawford pledged to move on, anxious to leave his inconsistent play in net during the Hawks' first-round playoff loss to Phoenix behind him.
Since then, he's done an about face. He boasts a 10-0-3 record and a career-best and league-leading 1.41 goals-against average. In Sunday's 2-1 shootout win over the Red Wings, Crawford made 32 saves and stonewalled Detroit's three shootout contestants to preserve the victory. Perhaps most impressive is that Crawford did so after facing only three first-period shots, forcing the third-year goalie to remain focused while not being overloaded with work early on before knocking away 32 of the 33 shots he faced the rest of the way.
"He's unbelievable," Hawks winger Patrick Kane said. "It's almost like we're saying that every game now. But both goaltenders have been great and a huge part of our success this year."
Crawford has split time this season with Ray Emery, the second half of the Hawks' 1-2 punch in net. Together, they've combined to make the Hawks' the league's best in goals-against average (1.67 a game) while managing to get the same level of support in front of them regardless of who is playing.
Crawford and Emery have become nearly interchangeable. Last week against St. Louis, Crawford started but left after the first period, only to have Emery step in and help preserve a shutout in a 3-0 victory. After missing Friday night's game against Columbus while still dealing with an upper body injury, Crawford took over again against Detroit on Sunday, continuing the Hawks' dominance over the rest of the league.
Maintaining focus has been critical for Crawford, keeping him among the league's elite goalkeepers all season.
"I'm just watching the puck the whole game – I don't know how else to explain it," Crawford said. "I've just been able to bear down and really focus, especially on little things on the side of the net and just make sure not to give up those bad goals that change momentum."
It's a major shift from last year when Crawford allowed 2.72 goals a game in 57 games, registering a .903 save percentage. Asked if he's playing the best hockey of his career, Crawford said he thought he competed at a high level at times last year but lacked some of the mental toughness and consistency that has seemed to make all the difference during the Hawks' current run.
Crawford has been able to stay sharp despite splitting time with Emery over the first 22 games. But having that steady competition on a regular basis, he maintains, has kept him at the top of his game,
"Ray's been awesome, and we're just kind of feeding off one another," Crawford said. "It's nice when it really doesn't matter who goes in there. Both guys go in there and are focused and just do their job. It's definitely a confidence builder for the guys that are playing in front of us."
The defense has certainly helped during a season when the Hawks are 12-0-3 in one-goal games. Quenneville has established confidence in Crawford and Emery alike, acknowledging Sunday that having two top goalies isn't a bad problem to have for a team that hopes to keep its success rolling all the way to the playoffs and beyond.
He referred to his goalie rotational system as a "healthy situation."
"The consistency (in net) has been probably the best situation we've been in, and it's been a key factor to our start," Quenneville said. "Both guys want to play, and both guys have proven in this league they can be a top goalie, and it just seems like no matter what player you look at in our lineup, everybody's making a meaningful contribution. And that starts with our goaltenders."
• Jeff Arnold is a Northwest Herald sports writer. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @NWH_JeffArnold.