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Hard work, more consistency paying off for Corey Crawford

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Quenneville: Crawford getting better, more consistent every year (0:43)

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville cites goalie Corey Crawford's work ethic as a reason he has found consistency and improved every year. (0:43)

CHICAGO -- The knocks on Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford used to be plentiful.

He wasn't mentally tough enough. His glove side was susceptible. He couldn't steal games on his own. He wasn't worth the six-year, $36 million contract he was given in 2013. He wasn't good enough to be the No. 1 goalie on a Stanley Cup championship team.

Those criticisms no longer exist. Crawford has turned each of them aside just as he does opponents' shots, and he has done so over a significant amount of time. The sample size is now large enough to determine who Crawford really is as a goaltender.

It's no longer just about what he did in the lockout-shortened 2013 season (Stanley Cup title), the 2013-14 season (advanced to conference finals), the 2014-15 season (another Cup) or even what he's doing this season (25-10-2, 2.17 goals-against average, .929 save percentage). It's about what Crawford has done over that entire span and how his numbers indicate he continues to improve. He has firmly placed himself in the upper echelon of NHL goalies.

"There's 25 other teams in the National Hockey League that would like to have Corey Crawford as their goalie," said Corey Hirsch, a former NHL goalie and coach. "He's been that good. When you're a goalie on a good team, people always say he wouldn't be as good if his team wasn't as good. It all goes hand-in-hand. You still have to stop the puck.

"Would he be this good on a team like Edmonton? I don't know. I think he stabilizes a group like that. He's the type of goalie who can build confidence. He can stabilize that team. I've seen him steal games. It's always tough to get that type of credit."

Crawford, 31, has never been one to make a big deal about the credit. Even when he was an All-Star Game snub last week, he shrugged it off while teammates expressed their disappointment. Crawford admitted it would have been nice to be selected, but he also saw the upside of having the time off.

What matters to Crawford is his own play and whether he's giving the Blackhawks a chance to win. That's certainly more measurable than how much respect he's receiving. Over the past four regular seasons, he has gone 105-51-22 with a 2.19 GGA and .923 save percentage. Among goalies who have played at least 100 games during that time, only Carey Price, Cory Schneider and Tuukka Rask have better save percentages.

Crawford proved during the 2013 season that he had what it took to be a Stanley Cup-winning starter. He provided the Blackhawks a consistent effort throughout their playoff run. It was the type of game-in, game-out effort Crawford sought to give more in the regular season the past few seasons. During the 2013-14 season, Crawford was in the bottom half of No. 1 goalies with a .550 quality start percentage, which measures a goalie's consistency.

He has turned that around the past two seasons. His .667 quality start percentage was second to only Rinne last season, and Crawford is currently second to Braden Holtby this season.

Crawford has also figured out how to maintain his play throughout the course of games. He never had more than four shutouts in a season prior to this one. He already has six shutouts through 37 starts this season. He's allowed just one goal in five other games, including in the Blackhawks' 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.

"Experience helps," said Crawford. "Just being able to stay in the game and not kind of lay off a little bit. Maybe sometimes you get a little complacent at an earlier age, earlier in your career. To really stick with it and be ready for chances late."

Crawford's progression as a consistent goaltender is something Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has recognized. The Blackhawks have also needed Crawford more as they have allowed more shots against in recent seasons. They gave up 30.2 shots per game last season and are at 30.3 this season.

"I think he definitely has gotten better every year, whether it's his approach, learning the game, working with his coach, familiarizing with his teammates," Quenneville said. "But I think you get a better understanding with time, goaltenders, of knowing not only your own strengths, but you get a pretty good read on how teams play, how individuals try to shoot or try to beat you. Those little education steps along the way only add to your game.

"I think that's the one area Corey's improved upon is that consistency. I always feel his work ethic is high-end, but I think the education of being in that position, you see improvements. I think [that's] part of him getting better every year."

Staying focused is one way Crawford has improved, but he also has simply gotten better at stopping pucks. Hirsch has witnessed Crawford become a more athletic goalie.

"He used to not have a very good glove hand," Hirsch said. "He's done a very good job with that. I think it was how he was taught his style. It's very limited in using your hands and arms. You have to give [Blackhawks goalie coach] Jimmy Waite a lot of credit. He's using his hands and arms more and being more athletic. He makes some spectacular glove saves now. He's a lot more athletic than people think."

Minnesota Wild forward Charlie Coyle isn't one who doubted Crawford's athleticism.

"Goalies today are bigger, and when you come down on a guy like him, it's hard to see any net," Coyle said. "He comes out and challenges and he gives the effort. If he gives up a rebound, he's getting right back and making that extra effort to make that unbelievable save. It's hard facing a goalie like that when he's putting in that effort and working that hard. He's a very athletic goalie.

"He's been so solid for the last few years. The goalie's always one of the most important players out there and they've won three out of the last six Cups and he's been a big reason for that. When you win a lot of games like he has in the playoffs and in the Cup finals, you gain a lot of confidence. It's a mindset and he just keeps getting better and better. His confidence is just so high and there's a good reason for that."

Blackhawks No. 2 goalie Scott Darling, a lifelong Blackhawks fan, used to watch Crawford's game from afar. Now that he has a better seat to take in Crawford, his appreciation has grown.

"I always thought Corey was a great goalie long before I came here, but now seeing him play night in and night out, you can't say enough about him as a goalie," Darling said. "His technique and reaction ability, people used to say about his glove; I don't know if you've seen all the amazing gloves saves he's made this year. There's really no leaks to his game right now and he's just playing incredible."

There were questions about whether Chicago invested too much money in Crawford when he agreed to that extension in 2013, but now it seems like a good deal. With two Stanley Cups already won with him as a starter, the Blackhawks have him for four more seasons after this one, and his $6 million cap hit has already fallen to a tie for eighth highest in the league.

Crawford has become the overall package other front-office executives are jealous of.

"What I like about him is his athleticism and compete," one Eastern Conference assistant general manager said. "He has tremendous rebound control. He never gives up on a shot. He was a great signing. He is an upper-tier goalie in the league. He wants to win."

ESPN.com's Joe McDonald contributed to this story.