CHICAGO – Before donning his gear and skating directly into the playoff spotlight, Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford practiced one more time Monday at the United Center.
Teammates peppered Crawford with hundreds of shots. They fired slap shots from the blue line, wrist shots from bad angles and one-timers from point-blank range.
Everything was fine until a blast from Patrick Sharp caught Crawford square in the mask.
Crawford kneeled forward on the ice and stayed down for a few seconds that seemed to take forever. Nearby, a coach blew a whistle, signaling for the next shooter to wait.
If I needed a reminder of Crawford’s importance to the Hawks, this was the moment.
“I’m a goalie,” Crawford said with a shrug afterward. “I take those shots once in awhile.”
Yes, fine, but not on the eve of what everyone hopes will be a Stanley Cup title run.
Shortly after absorbing Sharp’s shot, Crawford climbed to his skates, repositioned his mask, returned to the crease and brushed aside a hard slap shot by Brent Seabrook. He stopped plenty more shots for the next half-hour or so until practice had finished.
Tuesday marks the real deal.
The top-seeded Hawks will begin their playoff schedule when they host the No. 8 seed Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. The Hawks went 2-0-1 against the Wild during the regular season on their way to winning the Presidents’ Trophy.
That matters little to the Hawks as they shoot for a bigger goal.
“Our real season starts now,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said.
Crawford’s performance could determine how long that “real season” lasts.
As much as I have questioned Crawford in the past couple of years, he clearly is the Hawks’ best (and maybe only) option in net heading into the postseason. Fellow goaltender Ray Emery is out for Game 1 and perhaps for longer because of a lower-body injury that has sidetracked him for most of the past two weeks.
Emery’s absence means minor-league journeyman Henrik Karlsson is Crawford’s backup. Karlsson, 29, spent the year with the Rockford IceHogs and has five wins in 26 NHL games.
Here’s hoping Crawford can brush aside last season’s first-round playoff dud against the Phoenix Coyotes just as easily as he moved past Monday’s shot to the mask. A year ago, the Coyotes won three games in overtime against Crawford en route to a 4-2 series win.
On the other hand, Crawford was terrific in the playoffs in 2011. He was the biggest reason why the Hawks rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to force a Game 7 against Vancouver.
All of those experiences should help Crawford leading into his third postseason.
“That’s how you get better,” Crawford said. “You learn from your mistakes. You learn from everything that you’ve experienced on the ice, whether it’s good or bad.”
Anyone who has watched Crawford knows he has experienced plenty of both.
Amid that good and bad, Crawford has yet to experience something great.
Great is hoisting the Stanley Cup above your head.
Great is a championship parade through the streets of downtown.
Great is an unforgettable playoff run that could start today.
“To go all the way, that’s enough motivation,” said Crawford, who grew up in Montreal idolizing Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy. “Growing up, just living, breathing, eating hockey all my life, watching hockey growing up as a kid and watching teams win.
“You play street hockey and you play for the Cup. It’s something I’ve done all my life and something I want to accomplish.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.