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Crawford goes from front row to Stanley Cup frontline

Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford answers a question from the media during a news conference for the NHL Stanley Cup finals to be pla
Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford answers a question from the media during a news conference for the NHL Stanley Cup finals to be pla

(Reuters) - The last time the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2010, Corey Crawford had a front row seat in the stands but this year he will have an even better view,- from the frontline.

When the best-of-seven series against the Boston Bruins opens on Wednesday in Chicago, Crawford will be front-and-center, the Blackhawks number one netminder and number one reason they are back in the finals.

Four years ago, Crawford was the third netminder on the Blackhawks depth chart behind Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet and spent the finals as a member of the 'Black Aces', a practice squad helping the team prepare for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Fast forward to 2013, Crawford has completed his apprenticeship, winning the starting assignment with the type of stellar netminding that is likely to earn the 28-year-old Canadian consideration for the Sochi Olympic team.

"I wasn't around the team too much; I practiced with the other guys, the 'Black Aces'," recalled Crawford during the Stanley Cup finals media day on Tuesday.

"I was excited for the guys who were able to win it but at the same time you weren't playing so it's not the same feeling as when you are out there and you're battling hard.

"I had to sit on the sidelines and watch. That definitely motivated me to push myself even harder to make the NHL and now make the finals."

A hot goaltender is often the key to Stanley Cup glory and Crawford has sizzled this post-season with a record of 12-5 and a playoff best goals-against-average of 1.74.

Of the last 11 names engraved on the Conn Smythe trophy, that goes to the Stanley Cup playoffs most valuable player, five have been netminders, including the last two.

And if Crawford can continue his sparkling play and help the Blackhawks to a fifth championship, there could be another netminder's name added to the list.

Taken in the second round of the 2003 draft by Blackhawks, Crawford has paid his dues.

He has spent his entire professional career in the Chicago organization but the first five years were in the minor leagues riding the buses with Chicago farm teams the Norfolk Admirals and Rockford IceHogs.

"He's a guy we've had in our organization since we drafted him," said Chicago general manager Stan Bowman. "We've taken our time allowing him to improve year after year.

"He's finally made it to the NHL, established himself as the number one goaltender. "I think it's just nice to see now him getting the recognition that he deserves."

In one of the quirky sub plots in these finals, Boston netminder Tuukka Rask also watched from the bench when the Bruins lifted their last Stanley Cup in 2011 as Tim Thomas turned in a Conn Smythe effort in the Boston goal.

But like Crawford, Rask has stepped up to claim the number one job posting a playoff best save percentage of .943 along with a record of 12-4 that includes a pair of shutouts over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.

While a mouth-watering goaltending duel could prove to be the highlight of the 2013 Stanley Cup, Crawford and Rask dismissed any suggestion of a head-to-head battle.

"He (Rask) is a guy who is really athletic, he's quick on rebounds, he's a good goaltender but I'm thinking about what I have to do," said Crawford.

"I'm thinking about their shooters, their players, their tendencies. Really, it doesn't matter to compare us. I'm not shooting on him and he's not shooting on me."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; editing by Julian Linden)

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