On Monday, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville named rookie Antti Niemi the starter for Tuesday night’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes. It will be Niemi’s fourth start in five games for the Hawks; the Hawks have only won once in the previous three starts.
Does this mean Quenneville has officially moved Niemi to the top of the depth chart?
Cristobal Huet had been out with the flu, but has returned to skating with the team and Corey Crawford has since been reassigned to Rockford. Since Huet was pulled against Detroit on March 7, Niemi has drawn almost every start against a potential playoff team; Huet started the front half of a back-to-back in Philadelphia, but Niemi has started against Washington, Los Angeles and Phoenix. In those three starts, Huet has a .902 save percentage including a shutout of the Kings.
In his last start in Phoenix, Niemi faced 35 shots. The shot totals the Hawks netminders have been fighting off has been a disturbing trend over the past couple weeks, even before the injuries started to hit the Hawks’ blue line depth. For the season, the Blackhawks are allowing the fewest shots to reach their goalies in the NHL (24.7). However, since the Olympics, the Blackhawks have allowed 26.7 shots per game and since losing to Detroit on March 7, the Hawks are allowing 30.3 shots per game (including just 17 shots from the Kings in one of those eight games).
Clearly, the defense for the Blackhawks has become a concern. Quenneville did not hold his defensemen wholly accountable for the recent stretch of bad losses after the game in Phoenix, though, noting that there are five skaters on the ice and all five need to do a better job of playing defense together. But the effort from the skaters needs to be better.
Consider Brent Sopel’s line from the Phoenix loss. He played 22:01, and wasn’t credited with a single blocked shot. As a team, the Blackhawks are averaging 12.9 blocked shots per game as a team this year, with Sopel personally averaging 1.5 blocked shots per game. The Hawks, as a team, have only blocked 17 shots in their last two games. Early in the season one of the Blackhawks’ strengths was keeping pucks away from the net, but recently they have struggled in that category as well.
Brent Seabrook said after practice on Monday that he wants to play, but is leaving the final decision in the hands of the coaches and trainers. If he returns to the ice, the Hawks would get much-needed depth back on a blue line that has seen uncharacteristically high minutes being played by all six available defensemen. Quenneville could then dress six defensemen and Dustin Byfuglien as a forward, giving him more versatility than he’s been afforded over the past couple weeks.
No matter how many defensemen dress for each game, or forwards for that matter, the effort needs to be better for the Hawks to not finish Tuesday night looking up at Phoenix from second place in the Western Conference.
By starting Niemi in net again, though, Quenneville appears to be sending a message that he has become the number one netminder for the Blackhawks moving forward.