CHICAGO – Deep down inside – way, way deep down inside, far beneath his allegiance to the Blackhawks – Corey Crawford felt a twinge of sympathy for the overwhelmed goaltender on the other end of the ice.
Darcy Kuemper, who replaced injured Minnesota Wild starter Josh Harding in the second period of Game 4 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, gave up a 56-foot goal against Patrick Sharp on the first shot he faced in his playoff career.
“Their young guy coming in, letting in the first shot, it’s pretty nerve-wracking,” said Crawford, whose ill-fated playoff debut included giving up a quick goal against Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings in 2009. “I’ve been in that situation before. It’s obviously a pretty nervous time.”
These days, Crawford can look back on his playoff debut without embarrassment.
If No. 50 is not the No. 1 reason why the Hawks are on the verge of advancing to the conference semifinals, then he’s certainly close. Coming off of a Game 4 shutout, Crawford boarded the team’s return flight with the best goals-against average (1.39) and the best save percentage (.949) of any starter in the playoffs.
Although those statistics are stellar, a Hawks win in Game 5 at the United Center would give Crawford something more important: A playoff series win.
That proved to be elusive for Crawford in 2012, when he stumbled in a six-game series against the Phoenix Coyotes. It proved to be elusive in 2011, too, when the Hawks lost to the Vancouver Canucks in a seven-game series.
Yet teammates have defended Crawford throughout his postseason ups and downs, just as Crawford has defended the net. Including this series, Crawford is 8-9 in his playoff career with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
“I saw him dominate a Vancouver series two years ago,” Sharp said when asked whether Crawford was playing his best hockey yet. “He was our best player – took us to seven games and overtime. We probably didn’t really deserve to be there the way we were playing as players. And I thought he was good last year.
“He’s answered a lot of questions about his play. I feel like he’s been strong ever since he joined the team. There are no question marks from our players looking back at our goaltending.”
Plenty of other playoff teams wish they could say the same.
Across the league, either because of injuries or inconsistency, goaltending has become an unwanted drama at the worst possible time. Marc-Andre Fleury might have single-handedly cost the Pittsburgh Penguins a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup. Carey Price was injured and had to leave the game for the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, and his team promptly lost to slip into a 3-1 series deficit against Ottawa.
Meanwhile, the Wild have seen two goaltenders go down because of injuries: No. 1 starter Niklas Backstrom, who was injured during pregame warmups in Game 1, and No. 2 option Harding, who injured his left leg in the first period of Game 4.
All the while, Crawford has been as steady as a stream.
For that, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville is grateful.
“He’s maturing,” Quenneville said. “I think he had a real good start to the season. He’s had some good experience in big games, and that consistency that he’s had. …
“[He’s] just moving forward to the next shot and the next opportunity and being square and keeping a level disposition.”
Crawford has had help from his teammates along the way. Throughout the regular season and the playoffs, Hawks players have cleared rebounds and loose pucks away from the net and collected countless bruises by blocking shots from the point.
A win today could give Crawford and the rest of the Hawks a brief time to rest up while they await their second-round opponent.
“We just go about our business,” Crawford said. “All year long, we’ve just prepared for the next game.”
In this case, it’s the biggest next game yet.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.