A defining moment for Crawford?


LOS ANGELES -- Say what you will about Chicago netminder Corey Crawford -- and goodness knows plenty has been said during an up-and-down Western Conference finals -- but, at the end of the day, Crawford did not allow the one goal that almost everyone in the hockey world expected he would give up.

Surely, the Los Angeles Kings were fully expecting they would find a way to beat the Blackhawks' beleaguered netminder at least one more time when they were leading Game 5 by a 4-3 count, having erased Chicago leads of 2-0 and 3-1 seemingly with the flick of a switch.

Even when this monumental tug of war extended into overtime, was there not a reasonable expectation that it would be the Kings who would find a way to deliver against Crawford?

If you listened to the Kings after Michal Handzus, of all people, secured the Blackhawks a Game 6, there was a sense of an opportunity missed even though they lead the series 3-2.

And why not. Crawford was solid in a Game 1 victory after strong performances, for the most part, in the first two rounds. But the Kings owned Crawford and the entire Blackhawks team in winning three straight to push Chicago to the brink.

In those victories, the Kings poured 13 goals past Crawford on 82 shots.

And then came Game 5, a rollicking, see-saw affair that featured an overtime period that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville called perhaps the most exciting period he'd been a part of in a long career as a player and a coach.

Was it a defining moment for Crawford and the Blackhawks?

That will, of course, depend on Game 6.

But for a couple of days, this stands as a watershed moment for Crawford.

After the Blackhawks opened the game with two quick goals and then led by a 3-1 count, the Kings found another gear and scored three unanswered goals to take a 4-3 lead into the third period.

Like so many of the goals Crawford has allowed in this series, they weren't atrocious. Just not very good. Through two periods, Crawford allowed four goals on 25 shots.

Less than a minute after the Kings took the lead, Blackhawks defender Johnny Oduya was whistled for hooking. It was the kind of moment that, during the three-game L.A. winning streak, the Kings would have capitalized on.

Crawford looked out of sorts. The puck stayed in the Blackhawks zone. Each shot or attempted shot left the impression Crawford wasn't exactly sure where the puck was. At one point, he looked behind him on a failed shot from in front.

The United Center crowd collectively inhaled and held, and held and held.

But the Kings did not get what surely would have been a decisive fifth goal on that power play, and the period ended.

Still, there was a lot of buzz about the goaltender and what would happen next.

Was it possible Quenneville would go to rookie Antti Raanta?

If not, was there any way the Kings wouldn't exploit Crawford again in the third period?

Crawford stayed in, of course, and held the fort.

He denied the Kings on eight third-period shots. Then in overtime, the Montreal native did not flinch as he turned aside all 11 Los Angeles shots he faced.

Jeff Carter, the Kings' hottest player in this series, had a couple of good looks in the first overtime, but Crawford got a blocker on one shot and on another made himself big with Carter on the doorstep, his shot bouncing off the goaltender and into the corner.

"Great refocus and reset," former NHL netminder Kevin Weekes told ESPN.com after the game. "Excellent mental toughness."

Weekes noted that Crawford is 9-0 in Game 5s in his career and that his teammates should be buoyed by his performance in the most critical moments.

"Backs against the wall, he delivered again," Weekes said. "Whole Hawks team can take comfort from that."

Another former netminder and longtime NHL goalie coach Corey Hirsch said he thinks there might have been a renaissance for Crawford.

"It looks like he found his game again," Hirsch, the former St. Louis Blues goaltending coach, told ESPN.com via email Thursday. "Earlier in the series, I thought he was guessing a lot, down early. I also don't feel like Chicago was playing great in front of him though either. They are a high risk team in their transition game."

As for the importance to Crawford on a personal level?

"He wasn't good in Games 1 and 2 versus us [the Blues], then Game 3, he got a shutout, and was unbeatable from there. So he can turn it around, question is if it's too late," Hirsch added.

Crawford spoke after the game about the resiliency of his teammates and believing that they would find a way.

He declined to answer questions about an incident at the end of Game 4 in Los Angeles when he'd been pulled for an extra attacker and allegedly squirted water at a heckler, who later filed a police report with the Los Angeles police.

As one would expect, Crawford's teammates and coach spoke glowingly of his play with the game on the line.

"He's remarkable," said defenseman Johnny Oduya. "He's been really good making big saves in every overtime so far this year. He rises to the occasion. He likes it. That's going to be key moving forward."

Quenneville also praised Crawford's composure.

"I thought he really settled down. After the fourth one there, I thought he did everything we were looking for. Really showed composure; I liked the way he battled through it," the coach said Thursday before the team jetted back to the West Coast.

"I think after that fourth one there, we needed him to be great and solid. He delivered."

What does it mean?

Had the Hawks blown Game 5 and been dismissed from the playoffs, it would have been a huge setback for Crawford, who, in many peoples' eyes, should have won playoff MVP honors last year when the Blackhawks won the Cup.

Had their season ended Wednesday, fair or not, the discussion heading into next season would have been whether Crawford was evolving or rather devolving into a Marc-Andre Fleury-type character.

Funny how it goes, but after Game 1 the dominant storyline was "why doesn't Corey Crawford get more respect?" Then, the follow-up storyline through the next three games and much of Game 5 was, "Oh, so that's why he doesn't get more respect."

Not bad, but not good enough. For championship teams, that's not enough.

But in Game 5, Crawford was good enough. And for a goaltender who was suddenly expected to be less than that, his performance when it mattered most was important and possibly series-changing.

Longtime NHL netminder Kelly Hrudey noted that goaltenders need to learn how to continue to make saves and how to win, even when they've given up some goals. He told ESPN.com he believes Game 5 was an important moment for Crawford.

"I do. I really like his mental toughness," Hrudey wrote in a text.

Could Crawford toss a stinker in Game 6?


But if he doesn't and the Hawks somehow manage to force a deciding Game 7, well, the goal that Crawford refused to give up in Game 5 -- despite expectations of failure -- will loom even larger.