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From backups to starring roles: Goalies Rask, Crawford at centre of Stanley Cup finals

CHICAGO - For all the talk about the Conn Smythe award, Tuukka Rask just wants to win after he played a supporting role when Tim Thomas led the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup two years ago.

Same for Corey Crawford, who was watching from the stands when the Chicago Blackhawks won the title in Philadelphia in 2010.

Sure, it's nice to win a championship. It's a lot sweeter when you're on the ice at the very end.

"Once you've seen it, and not being on the ice, I think everybody would like to have that chance someday," Rask said. "For me, it came pretty early after our win and I'm just trying to make the most out of it and enjoy myself."

Rask and Crawford will be in the spotlight when the Bruins take on the Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday night, with each goalie hoping to continue what already has been an exemplary post-season.

The rise of each player is a testament to the patience and steady approach of the Bruins and Blackhawks, and it's no coincidence that each team is seeking to become the first franchise with two Stanley Cups in the salary cap era.

After a slow and steady climb, Rask and Crawford have been the best goaltenders in the league during this year's playoffs. Crawford leads the NHL with a 1.74 goals-against average, just ahead of Rask (1.75 GAA).

"A lot of people had questions on Corey. He's really been progressing every year," said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, one of Crawford's biggest supporters over the years.

"He's a guy we've had in our organization since we drafted him. We've taken our time allowing him to improve year after year. He's finally made it to the NHL, established himself as the No. 1 goaltender."

While Chicago drafted Crawford in the second round a decade ago, Rask was a first-round selection for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005. Boston got him in a trade for goalie Andrew Raycroft a year later.

General manager Peter Chiarelli, who officially took over the team a couple weeks after the Rask deal, said it's his understanding that the Bruins decided they wanted Rask instead of centre Jiri Tlusty in the deal.

"There was a lot of discussion at both ends about it," Chiarelli said. "It was decided that it would be Rask from Boston's end. I think they tried to come back and maybe flip that, consider the other guy, who is a good player in Carolina now. Eventually they said no and the deal was done."

It certainly worked out for the Bruins.

Rask took over after Thomas decided to take a year off. Once the 26-year-old Finn got off to a great start, the mercurial Thomas was traded to the New York Islanders.

The 6-foot-2 Rask helped the Bruins finish second in the Northeast Division, then raised his game to another level in the playoffs. He shut down high-scoring Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals, allowing just two goals and recording a .985 save percentage in a sweep.

The impressive performance included 53 saves in Game 3, giving Patrice Bergeron enough time to net the winning goal in the second overtime of a 2-1 victory.

"He's been arguably our best player this far," Boston forward Milan Lucic said after the Bruins arrived in Chicago on Tuesday, "and I hope he can keep it up."

Antti Niemi, another Finnish goalie who is good friends with Rask, was in net when the Blackhawks won the title in 2010. But he signed with San Jose in the ensuing off-season while Chicago worked through salary cap issues.

The Blackhawks then signed Marty Turco to start in goal, and planned to have Crawford serve as the backup. Those plans eventually fell apart and Crawford earned the starting nod. He won at least 30 games in each of his first two seasons in a regular role, and then went 19-5 with a career-best 1.94 GAA this year.

"He's had a lot to overcome," said defenceman Brent Seabrook, who was selected by Chicago in the first round of that same 2003 draft. "Whether it's been fighting for position, fighting for jobs, we brought some guys in, I think he's kept his composure. I think he's worked real hard."

With Crawford in goal, the Blackhawks lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons. Surrounded by the core of the Stanley Cup-winning team, the 28-year-old Crawford still had to learn about playing in the post-season.

He's come a long way.

"I'd say I learned a lot, especially some of the goals I gave up last year I wasn't very happy with," Crawford said. "Just able to learn from that. Get over it, and move on. No matter what happens, there's always a next shot so you have to make sure you're there to save the next one."

 

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