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Crawford compiles team MVP-worthy campaign for Chicago

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CHICAGO -- Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell still raises both of his eyebrows when he tells the story of how he learned what goalie Corey Crawford was all about.

"When you're one of the last few guys on the ice and he goes around to each individual guy on the ice and asks them if they need anything else from him, more shots, anything -- he did it to me this year and I was just like, 'Wow, that's awesome and that's a goaltender that wants to get better,' " Campbell told NHL.com. "He did that not just once but a few times to me, asking if I need anything else or if there was anything else he can do. What a great team guy."

Campbell stressed that never before in his 11 years in the NHL has a goalie done such a thing at the end of practice.

Crawford, though, might just be different than a lot of young goalies both with his mental capacity to handle the increased workload in a series of must-win games and his physical ability to improve over the course of a two-month starting streak despite having an NHL resume that included only eight starts prior to the season.

Successful young goalies in the NHL are not rare; ones who finally make it after five long seasons in the American Hockey League are.

Crawford played 255 AHL games with the Norfolk Admirals and then Rockford IceHogs from 2005-10. On Sunday he'll be making his 27th straight start in the Chicago Blackhawks' most important game of the season when they host Detroit at United Center (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, TSN) knowing one point will guarantee them a playoff berth.

He didn't get here by accident.

"Mentally he's sharper than a lot of goalies that I've ever played with," Campbell said. "He doesn't let too many things bother him or if there are ups and downs he just rides an even keel. Those are two of the strongest traits he has. I think Corey is more advanced ... probably from having to endure more seasons in the American League."

Crawford has arguably been the Blackhawks' MVP this season because he came along at a time when they needed him so badly.

Think about it -- where would the Hawks be today had Crawford not turned in a season that includes 33 wins, a 2.27 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and four shutouts in 54 starts?

Stanley Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi is playing in San Jose and his initial replacement, veteran Marty Turco, was not the answer.

"I like his composure as the game progresses -- as the game gets deeper in he just challenges," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "He doesn't change one iota about how he approaches the shooters and how he handles the tougher situations. I just think he's grown in his confidence and that's how he carries himself."

It matters that Turco has not sulked and instead has been a friend to Crawford, but more importantly is Crawford's mental capacity to handle the job was already strong and his confidence there when he started the season.

Five seasons in the minors hardens a player. Getting waived and subsequently passed over by 29 other teams as Crawford did prior to last season stings.

"That hurt him quite a bit," Campbell said of Crawford getting waived. "That's a time when you really question yourself."

But, through all the promotions and demotions and even through the unsettling waiver process, Crawford figured out how to stop wondering and just start playing.

That same mentality works in the NHL. He doesn't look over his shoulder and see a veteran clamoring to get in; he instead focuses straight ahead and keeps the next save in mind.

"For sure there were times [that I wondered if I was going to make it]," Crawford told NHL.com. "I was [upset] every time I got sent down. I was frustrated and obviously wondering if ever I am going to get a chance. After a while that kind of goes away and you start playing hockey. Once you play hockey you don't think about that stuff. You just focus on what you're doing."

Crawford's preparation drew praise from both Quenneville and Campbell.

"Here I am a little bit better prepared and a little more focused just because you're at this level and there's no room for error," Crawford said. "Sometimes in the minors it's easy to slip a little bit and get away from preparation, but here every game is so hard that you have to prepare and be ready for every one."

This might be the biggest game of Crawford's life Sunday against the Red Wings, but he couldn't recall the last really big game he played in.

"You know what, I'm just going to prepare like I always have and try to stay focused, battle for every puck," he said. "That's the only way I can approach it."

He admitted he'll be "a little nervous," but added, "that's only normal I think."

Crawford said he was nervous before Friday's game at Detroit, but his teammates staked him an early 3-0 lead and he wound up with 26 saves -- some sparkling -- to win his 33rd game.

It was another ho-hum performance. The Blackhawks are used to those by now.

"We like the way he approaches it, the way he competes day in and day out," Quenneville said. "He's got a great disposition about him and he handles all situations. How he's handled preparing himself going into games knowing the workload is big and the time of year is even bigger is a complement to how he approaches the whole game."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl