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Elite matchup: Two goalies, one Cup

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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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CHICAGO

Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask was as quick with a correction as he’s been with his pads this postseason.

“I said 'good' goalie,” Rask said with a slight smirk.

No, Rask didn’t call himself an ‘elite’ goalie during the Stanley Cup Media Day on Tuesday. His counterpart on the Chicago Blackhawks, Corey Crawford, didn’t either.

But stats and what the two have accomplished this season seem to say otherwise — even if Wednesday’s Game 1 at United Center will mark the first time either has played in a Stanley Cup Final game.

Rask netted two shutouts, a 0.44 goals-against average and a .985 save percentage as the Bruins swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals. Crawford leads all goalies (with a 1.74 goals-against average) this postseason, one that includes a 3-1 series comeback against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round.

For Crawford, this postseason has been a major improvement over the last where he had a lackluster .893 save percentage and a 2.58 goals-against average as the Blackhawks were bounced in the first round by the Phoenix Coyotes.

“To be honest, I never doubted myself and I don’t think the guys in the room doubted me,” Crawford said. “That’s really what matters. No matter what you do, there is always going to be somebody who doubts you. I never listen to that.”

His backup, Ray Emery, told FOXSports.com that “there was never a doubt” about the 28-year-old Montreal native.

“As far as the playoffs and the regular season go, it’s been a testament to what he’s capable of doing,” Emery said. “He’s done nothing but show he’s an elite goalie in this league.”

This is Crawford’s third season as a starter. Rask likely wouldn’t even be in his first as a starter had Tim Thomas — the goalie who led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011 — decided not to take the season off (he was later acquired by the Islanders). That postseason he didn’t see a minute of ice time.

Nonetheless, the 26-year-old Finn quickly won over the locker room he’d been an apprentice in the last four seasons behind Thomas.

“We knew Timmy wasn’t coming back,” Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said. “It’s a non-factor. (Thomas) hasn’t been here all year. It was never a distraction because we knew since Day 1, he wasn’t coming back.”

Rask’s first season as the top goalie hasn’t been without some struggles, including as the team faltered down the stretch. Rask wasn’t even on the ice — pulled for an extra attacker — as the Bruins scored the final two goals of a historic three-goal, third-period comeback to force overtime and advance past the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the first round.

“To make it to the finals, you have to overcome some adversity,” Rask said. “I think we did it the hard way, going down 4-1 in the last game against Toronto. Winning a game like that boosts your confidence. Since then, we have improved our hockey and have been solid the last two series.”

Solid, minus the often-replayed moment when Rask tripped in the second round and let Carl Hagelin of the New York Rangers get an easy goal.

“I think I’m going to find myself in the 'Not Top 10' list again in the future,” Rask joked.

The goalies in about 30 pounds of gear won’t be the only ones determining which Original Six franchise will hoist the Cup. (However long this series, one team will be the first to do so in the salary cap era.)

The Bruins — led by hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara and arguably the best group of two-way forwards in the NHL — bottled up Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins last round. The Blackhawks have their own former Norris Trophy winner in Duncan Keith and an offense powered by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane that solved stingy Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick last round.

“I want to beat the other guy on the other side because that’s how we’re going to win the Stanley Cup,” said Crawford, a top candidate to win the Conn Smythe Trophy that goes to the playoff MVP. “You have to beat the other team. It’s more about being ready for their forwards. I’ll let our guys worry about their goaltender.”

And both seem content to let others label them elite.

Tagged: Bruins, Blackhawks, Kings, Islanders, Penguins, Corey Crawford, Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick, Tuukka Rask

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