CHICAGO (AP) — Corey Crawford was in the stands when Patrick Kane slammed home the goal that secured the Stanley Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010.
A year later, Tuukka Rask was just a practice player when Tim Thomas led the Boston Bruins to the title.
Fast forward to Wednesday night at the United Center, and Crawford and Rask will be in goal when the Blackhawks host the Bruins in Game 1 of the Cup finals.
It’s been a long road, but that little taste of the Stanley Cup turned into much more for two of the most important players for this series.
Sure, it’s nice to win a championship. It’s just a little 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.”
The rise of Rask and Crawford 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).
“It’s a process for goalies, I think,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, one of Crawford’s biggest supporters over the years. “We’ve always had confidence in his ability. I think it’s just nice to see now him getting the recognition that he deserves.
“The consistent play that we’ve had game in, game out, it’s been that way from the beginning of the year. We know we’re going to get a great performance from him every night.”
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 center 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 against the Penguins 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 just, I think, fundamentally a good goalie,” Boston defenseman Andrew Ference said after the Bruins arrived in Chicago on Tuesday. “As far as positioning and his style, he has a very consistent style, so he doesn’t really get himself into I think too many bad situations.”
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 offseason 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 defenseman 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 postseason.
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.”