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Crawford's game, confidence at elite level

Blackhawks goalie's popularity also steadily growing

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

11:45 PM CDT, June 2, 2013

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In one of his many bold moves Sunday night, Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford ventured 10 feet out of the crease as the puck dangerously veered toward him.

It had taken an awkward bounce off Kings center Jeff Carter's stick and initially looked harmless — and would have been had teammate Tyler Toffoli not been closing in. Sensing trouble, Crawford adjusted by racing forward and diving on top of the puck an instant before Toffoli arrived.

The risk was obvious to the 21,824 fans at the United Center for the Blackhawks' 4-2 victory over the Kings in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. So was the reason Crawford took it.

Crawford's confidence, growing even more quickly than his abundant playoff beard, made him believe he can make any play he wants. Through two wins over the Kings, Crawford has.

"I feel like I've been pretty strong,'' Crawford said.

Has any playoff goalie been stronger?

The Hawks-Kings series has delivered on its promise to see an elite goaltender at the top of his game — and an opportunity to watch Jonathan Quick too. Crawford has outplayed the man considered by some the best goaltender in the world, the guy likely to represent Team USA at the 2014 Winter Olympics … perhaps against Crawford backstopping Team Canada?

Only time will tell about that. But we can say with certainty time ran out on Quick with 10 minutes, 40 seconds left in the second period after Michal Handzus scored the Hawks' fourth goal. Kings coach Darryl Sutter immediately signaled for backup Jonathan Bernier. A Quick hook indeed.

When Quick skated slowly off the ice, an intimidating aura went with him. It might return Tuesday night at the Staples Center, where the Kings have yet to lose a playoff game. Or the Hawks might have created an experience that will shape the series.

"I'm sure a guy like him, a competitor, is going to bounce back,'' Jonathan Toews said. "We'll try our best not to let him get his confidence back.''

The barrage of four goals on 17 shots was as impressive as it was indelible. The Hawks chased a fearless goalie who doesn't run from anything. The Kings had allowed three or fewer goals in an NHL-record 34 straight playoff games. On Twitter, Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo shared a flashback: "Major deja vu just now,'' Luongo wrote.

At least Quick didn't cry.

Meanwhile, Crawford barely blinked. Thanks to Crawford, the Kings lately have struggled to score as much as the White Sox.

"He has been on top of his game, aggressive,'' Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi said.

Crawford lost the shutout on a Carter blast in the second and the Kings added a late power-play goal. Those merely affected Crawford's statistics, not aesthetics. A highlight came on a Dustin Penner wrister just inside the faceoff dot that required a sprawling save. Yet of all Crawford's instinctive reactions, the one earning the most respect came during a sequence Joel Quenneville called "spontaneous combustion.''

As Kings winger Kyle Clifford mixed it up with Toews, Crawford defended his captain.

"I figured it was enough and decided to go in there and grab his head,'' Crawford said.

Toews smiled and patted Crawford on the backside, showing appreciation Hawks fans seconded. The video-board replay produced a roar for a guy slowly but consistently working his way into Chicago's heart.

"That was a great moment,'' Toews said.

If Crawford keeps creating magical moments, everybody who expected Quick to outplay him will eat crow. Eventually, the goalie who began the playoffs being asked about Ray Emery could end them hearing questions about Conn Smythe. He has been the most reliable Hawk.

That is neither overstatement nor insignificant given how much the Hawks have elevated their play. For the second straight game, all four lines produced and the Hawks played whatever style necessary.

Their prettiest goal happened when Viktor Stalberg made a fancy pass to Andrew Shaw, who beat Quick low on the glove side. Their ugliest came when Bryan Bickell camped in front of the net and the puck squirted through Quick's legs — with Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr's help. The best description of their other goal came from WGN-AM's John Wiedeman: "(Brent) Seabrook with a howitzer from the right circle.''

When they combine such skill and strength, the Hawks look like the team that went 24 games without a regulation loss to start the season. Perhaps the Red Wings will serve the same purpose in 2013 the Predators served in 2010: Scaring the Hawks badly enough in the playoffs to wake them up and be feared again.

Goalie Antti Niemi steadily progressed to make that historic 2010 postseason possible. As the Hawks took a commanding 2-0 series lead, Crawford stayed on a path to dominate this one.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh