Mike Smith has been one of the hottest goalies in the NHL, a major reason the Phoenix Coyotes won a division title and have home ice against the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs.
But it might be the guy on the far end of the ice who has as much to say about the outcome of the opening-round series. Chicago goalie Corey Crawford, who survived an up-and-down season to play some of his best hockey in the closing weeks, finished 8-1-2 over his final 11 games. And he was stellar in his previous playoff appearance in a seven-game opening-round loss to Vancouver a year ago.
Crawford is aware of how well Smith has played — he allowed two goals over the final five games and beat Chicago three times this season — but said it should have little bearing on how he performs in a series that begins Thursday night at Glendale, Ariz.
Facing Smith is not really the issue.
"I'm going to go out there and play the same way. Whatever he's done before, that's fine and that's good for him, but we'll worry about our game," Crawford said this week.
"I think I've been asked that probably 10 times already. I'm not scoring on him, unless I fire a lucky one from 200 feet. .... I'm not playing against just him. I've got to worry about their forwards, not what he's doing on the other side. Let our forwards and our D worry about him."
Crawford was 30-17-7 with a 2.72 goals against average this season and a save percentage of .903. He was inconsistent at times, allowing some soft goals and spent some extended time on the bench — a six-game stretch in December and another five games in March as the Blackhawks turned to veteran backup Ray Emery.
But Crawford regrouped and both he and the Blackhawks finished strong. Chicago reached 101 points during a season that saw them struggle through a nine-game losing streak.
The 27-year-old Crawford, who got a three-year, $8 million contract last summer, said he's feeling as comfortable in net now as he has at any time during the season. One reason for his improvement is that he's gotten a better read on when to stay back and when to move forward.
"There were stretches this year where I felt really good. Right now, yeah, the timing's on," he said.
"I feel good, picking the right spots to be aggressive. It just seems like my game has come together."
His teammates, of course, have plenty of confidence headed into the playoff after the way Crawford played against the Canucks in the first round a year ago, allowing an average of 2.21 in the seven games.
"Corey is a good goalie too and played well for us in the playoffs last year. So we can count on that again this year," said defenseman Duncan Keith.
"He's really stepped up his game," Patrick Sharp added. "He's gearing up to play well and we know he will."
Crawford is low key and doesn't appear to be rattled easily, which is a must in the frenetic atmosphere of playoff hockey.
"I don't see pressure at all, I just see it as fun hockey at a fun time of year," he said.
And his play against the Canucks a year ago — the Blackhawks rallied from a 3-0 deficit to tie the series before losing Game 7 in overtime at Vancouver — has prepared him. In that 2-1 loss in Game 7, Crawford stopped 36 of 38 shots.
"There is a little bit different feeling in the playoffs, the pace is a little bit faster," he said.
"You go through that, it definitely helps. I'll just have to remember some of those times and control those feelings and try to keep the momentum when we have it."
Copyright Associated Press