After Thursday night’s game in Calgary, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville indicated that there would be more Antti Niemi in the net in the coming days. Considering he would only give incumbant number one Cristobal Huet a veiled vote of confidence after Wednesday’s practice, how close are the Hawks to making a permanent switch atop the depth chart in net?
And is Niemi ready to be the man?
January has presented a handful of circumstances that have brought us to where this potential transition. The turmoil began on Jan. 9, when Huet and the Blackhawks blew a huge lead in Minnesota. Oddly enough, Niemi allowed three goals on only 12 shots in the following game, but that loss has somehow bee lost in the shuffle of Huet’s unfortunate streak of questionable performances. Following the Minnesota start, Huet got a victory because of the Hawks’ offense in the 6-5 win in Columbus; Huet allowed the five goals on only 26 shots. Then came Tuesday’s start in Ottawa, where Huet certainly wasn’t the whole problem but allowed four soft goals on 18 shots in an ugly loss.
Overall, Huet is 4-1-1 in January, allowing 3.00 goals per game with a pedestrian .862 save percentage against 21.83 shots per game.
Meanwhile, Niemi is 4-1-0 in January, allowing 2.20 goals per game with a solid .913 save percentage against 23 shots per game.
Huet’s gross won-loss record has benefited from the Blackhawks offense and defense in front of him this year, as he ranks in the top ten in the NHL in both save percentage and goals against for the season. It has been the two rough patches in the season – one early in the season in October and the other now – that have fans questioning whether or not Huet can lead this potent team to a Stanley Cup victory.
It isn’t only fans asking the questions, though. Jeremy Roenick took a shotat both Huet and Niemi on ESPN radio in Chicago earlier this week, and many national analysts have pointed out goaltending as the Blackhawks only flaw.
What certainly hasn’t helped Huet’s case in net has been the number of seemingly easy goals he’s allowed at times this year, while Niemi has been spectacular on occasion. One needs look no further than overtime of Sunday’s game in Detroit, when Henrik Zetterberg had a one-on-none breakaway that Niemi killed brilliantly.
The multi-million question for the Blackhawks organization, and the fans that will invest emotionally and financially in the playoff run this year, is which netminder is the man to get this team over the top for the first time since 1961. Huet has playoff experience; but his 6-10 record and accompanying 2.73 goals against average aren’t numbers that build confidence.
The overall body of work for Huet has been above average this year. He stands seventh in the NHL in goals against (2.24 per game), but his .904 save percentage is only 28th in the league. What has helped Huet’s gross numbers cover for his mediocre save percentage is the defense in front of him; Huet is only facing 22.6 shots per game this year.
Considering Huet’s numbers against other playoff teams’ netminders in the West, there is cause for concern. San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov is facing 29.8 shots per game, so his .928 save percentage still ends up with him allowing 2.17 goals per game. Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo, whom the Hawks will face on Saturday, is facing 27.6 shots per game, so despite having a better save percentage (.919) than Huet, his goals against average is higher (2.30).
Huet has now started enough games to officially qualify for the NHL leader board, and has jumped to the top in many categories. His goals against average of 1.85 is not only the best in the NHL, but the only one under 2.00 per game among qualifying netminders. He’s also facing 23.6 shots per game, which is still lower than many of his peers but is higher than Huet’s total. Niemi is also tied with Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur of New Jersey for eighth in the NHL in save percentage at .923, also considerably better than Huet’s numbers thus far this season.
While both Niemi and Huet have four shutouts, tied with Colorado’s Craig Anderson for second in the Western Conference (Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov has five), considering Niemi’s have come in only 17 starts makes the number ridiculous. When you also then consider that two of Niemi’s four shutouts have come at Detroit and at Vancouver, a game that ended 1-0, the performances from Niemi have been fantastic this year.
The Blackhaws might not want to blow the whistle and invite everyone in Blackhawks’ Nation on board, but it might be time that the Niemi Bandwagon starts accepting applications for April’s playoff run. Numbers don’t lie, and Niemi is not only the better goalie in Chicago, but has been arguably one of the best in the NHL this year.