Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, left, celebrates with Patrick Kane (88) after the Blackhawks defeated the Minnesota Wild 2-1 in Game 5 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series in Chicago, Sunday, May 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
CHICAGO - Corey Crawford started every single playoff game when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last year. Detroit had Jimmy Howard in goal, Jonathan Quick was in net for Los Angeles, Boston had Tuukka Rask, and Crawford beat each one of them.
Chicago's unassuming goaltender still had his doubters when this season began.
Not so much right now.
Crawford is among the NHL's playoff leaders with a .931 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average, leading the Blackhawks to the Western Conference finals for the fourth time in six seasons. The breakout post-season comes after he set career highs for games and starts while going 32-16-10 during the regular season.
"It's another step closer to our ultimate goal and we're pretty excited about that right now," Crawford said moments after he helped finish off Minnesota in the second round. "Resilient bunch and we never give up or get down, never get too high. That was a pretty good finish for this one."
With Chicago locked in a tight series with the improving Wild, Crawford stepped up at a pivotal moment for the Blackhawks' title defence.
He had 27 saves in Game 5, helping the Blackhawks rally for a 2-1 win and a 3-2 series lead. Then he made 34 more stops in a 2-1 win at Minnesota on Tuesday night, keeping his team in the game until Patrick Kane got free for the series-clinching goal in overtime.
"He was big," Kane said. "Seems to be a trend in this building, kind of in the second period, that they outplay us. I'm sure he wasn't happiest with us with how we were playing in front of him. But he did what he does. He's a great goaltender, and we feel he's the best in the league for that reason."
It was Minnesota's first home loss of the post-season, but Crawford didn't sound all that impressed with his performance.
"I rate it a as a win," he said. "That's the only thing that counts."
Crawford was just a spectator when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, beating Philadelphia in six games. He took over as Chicago's starting goaltender the following season and posted a career-high 33 wins.
Crawford took his lumps when the Blackhawks lost in the first round of the NHL playoffs in 2011 and 2012. He put those years of difficult lessons to good use in 2013, when he went 16-7 with a .932 save percentage and an NHL-best 1.84 GAA in Chicago's run to the title.
Now he's back for more. Next up is a rematch with the Kings, who lost to the Blackhawks in the conference finals a year ago, or a showdown with the Anaheim Ducks, the West's top seed. Los Angeles beat Anaheim 2-1 on Wednesday night to send the series to Game 7 on Friday.
The conference final begins Sunday afternoon at either Anaheim or Chicago.
"Every round gets harder," said the 29-year-old Crawford, who received a $36 million, six-year contract extension after last year's title. "Two really strong teams that are playing right now, we're going to have to face one of them. Have to get some rest and prepare to work harder for our opportunities."