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January 29, 2013 | 9:40am ET
Crawford key to Chicago's success
By Tab Bamford,

CHICAGO, IL -- When writing the season preview for the Chicago Blackhawks, I labeled Corey Crawford as one of the Hawks' players to watch this season.

"How Crawford performs to begin the season will determine what, if any, moves GM Stan Bowman will make before next season."

The reason Crawford has become a point of emphasis at the beginning of this year is because of how the last two post-seasons ended.

What has become clear to most onlookers in the two seasons since 2010's Cup run (and subsequent fire sale) is that the Chicago Blackhawks still have a good enough core to compete with anyone in the NHL. The only things keeping them from making deep runs into the postseason have been health and suspect play between the pipes.

In 2011, the Hawks were banged up when they took on the Vancouver Canucks in the first round. If not for Crawford's stellar series -- including a shutout and a .927 save percentage -- the series wouldn't have lasted seven games.

Twelve months later, the script was flipped. Crawford's save percentage plummeted to .893 and two soft overtime goals left many questioning if Crawford was mentally strong enough to be the number one netminder in Chicago.

Bowman, head coach Joel Quenneville and Crawford himself were clear at the end of the 2012 post-season: he had to be better for the Blackhawks to compete. Indeed, if he wasn't more consistent, the organization would have to look elsewhere for a solution.

With Chicago playing 10 of their first 12 games away from the United Center, the need for consistent play between the pipes became imperative.

And, after accepting the reality of his position with the organization before the lockout-shortened season got started, Crawford has been exceptional in the early going.

On Monday, Crawford was named the No. 2 star for the season's first week by the NHL after posting a 5-0 record, complimented by a .933 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against-average. What's more, he's allowed only nine goals to the some of the better teams in the league; Crawford has defeated the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, division rival (and defending Central champion) St. Louis Blues, the talented Dallas Stars and, in his best game to date, the hated Detroit Red Wings.

Certainly, Crawford's improvement hasn't been a one-man show.

Last year, the Blackhawks were mediocre (read: bad) in both special teams, ranking in the league's lower third in both powerplay efficiency and penalty killing. This year, the Hawks have been dominant on PK, allowing only one goal in 23 opportunities. Chicago has also converted seven of 27 powerplays of their own, good for a tie with St. Louis and Tampa for the second-best total in the league (San Jose has 12 PP goals, already).

A healthy Blackhawks team is playing fantastic hockey right now, and Crawford has backed up that play with a strong start of his own. The sample size isn't huge, but the caliber of the opponents and quality of Crawford's play cannot be ignored.

The condensed schedule will test every team in the league, and there aren't many players in the league that will remain under the scrutiny that Crawford will with these Blackhawks. If he can continue to playing confidently, the sky's the limit in Chicago.

Tab Bamford is the Chicago Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.

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