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Siegel: Crawford, Rask clash in Stanley Cup spotlight

Jonas Siegel
6/11/2013 11:01:05 PM
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CHICAGO – When Patrick Kane iced the Flyers for the Blackhawks' first Stanley Cup in 49 years back in 2010, there in the stands at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia to experience the excitement and pandemonium of a long-awaited victory was a jubilant, but ultimately unsatisfied goaltender from Montreal.

Then the third man in the Chicago crease, firmly behind the starter, Antti Niemi, and his backup, Cristobal Huet, Corey Crawford wanted to feel the weight of the game's ultimate prize, own it for himself. 

"Obviously, I was excited for the guys that were able to win it, [but] at the same time you weren't playing so it's not the same feeling," a heavily bearded Crawford said from media day at the United Center on Tuesday afternoon. "When you're out there and you're battling hard and you give up so much, so much sacrifice and so much hard work to finally achieve that goal, it's a lot different [than] when you're sitting in the stands."

Crawford will be far from the stands when the Cup Final gets underway on Wednesday night. A second round pick of the Blackhawks organization in 2003, the 28-year-old will get his chance to "achieve that goal" of a Stanley Cup win, now the man in the Chicago crease.

Crawford has sizzled in the 2013 postseason, topping all counterparts with a miniscule 1.74 goals against average, ranked second with a .935 save percentage.

"I played with him for six years, coming up in the minor leagues together," said former Rockford IceHog teammate and current Blackhawk Bryan Bickell. "His focus level from where it was then to where it is now, it's changed. Him being in Rockford to start off his career, to get that confidence where he is now, it's unbelievable. He's been playing great for us, he's our backbone."

Crunched with cap constraints following their Cup victory in the summer of 2010 – Chicago had recently matched a four-year offer sheet to blooming defender Niklas Hjalmarsson – the Blackhawks parted ways with Niemi, who had been awarded a $2.75 million judgment from the arbitration process, leaving a gaping hole in the crease of their Cup defence. They pledged to fill it with 34-year-old Marty Turco, who had recently concluded a lengthy and successful tenure in Dallas.

Lingering in the background was Crawford, who would eventually usurp Turco for the starting role.

"It was five years that I had to work hard in the minors," said Crawford, who teamed with Ray Emery to win the William M. Jennings Trophy for the lowest goals-against average in the 2013 regular season. "I didn't think that I was owed anything. It never crossed my mind. It was more of 'I just have to keep playing hard, keep working hard and force them to make a decision where they have to put me on their team. That year was a lot of fun. I started out as a backup behind Marty and I learned a lot from that guy."

He tasted failure in his first two trips to the postseason as the lead in goal, falling in an epic seven-game series to Vancouver in 2011 before dropping a six-game set to Phoenix in the spring of 2012. Those lessons, like his time in the minors, have made an opportunity such as this all the more sweet.

"Obviously, your goal is to get to the end and win and whenever you don't do that, you wonder why," Crawford said.

Countering him in the first-ever Stanley Cup meeting between the Blackhawks and Bruins will be a goaltender who faced a similar circumstance when his team hoisted the grand prize in 2011, albeit not from the stands as Crawford had experienced.

Tuukka Rask sat on the bench when Boston captured the Cup two years ago, the backup to the enigmatic, but incredibly effective Bruins starter Tim Thomas. While he posted the stingiest of numbers – including a .931 save percentage in 2009-2010 – Rask was typically playing second fiddle to Thomas, save for the 2010 postseason when the Bruins unraveled behind a 3-0 series lead, their foes that year in Philadelphia squaring off with Chicago in the 2010 final.

Now, like Crawford, he'll get his opportunity to win the Cup as the lead in the Boston crease.

"I think everybody would like to have that chance someday," said Rask, who exudes not quite cockiness but a certain confidence in his demeanor, "and for me it came pretty early after our win. I'm just trying to make the most out of it and enjoy myself."

A teammate since the 2009-2010 campaign, Daniel Paille had a sense that Rask was capable of the theatrics he's pulled off this postseason, leading all goaltenders with an utterly tremendous .943 save percentage, stopping all but two of the 136 shots he faced from the Penguins in the Eastern Final.

"I thought that years ago when he was a starter back in 2009," Paille said of a regular season in which Rask posted a 1.97 goals against average. "But Tuukka, he just was patient, waited his time and now he's seizing the opportunity. I don't think he surprises any of us."

Echoing those thoughts was Patrice Bergeron, who claimed that he knew "right away" that the former Maple Leafs draft pick was capable of the spectacular.

"He's got the poise but also the confidence in him that he can do the job," Bergeron said, "but also he's got the talent and obviously that's something important to have and also the character. He had everything from the beginning to be a starter, but not just a starter but a goalie who can steal games for you.

"I've always had tremendous confidence in his game and the way that he handles himself off the ice and the way that he could shake off a tough performance or the opposite is true, when he had a really good performance and he stole a game for us, he never got over-confident. That's what you're looking for in a goalie."

There for the taking is an opportunity for one of the two goaltenders to stamp out a place in the forefront of a Stanley Cup victory. No longer will one linger in the shadows.

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