After Tuesday morning’s skate, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told the media that Antti Niemi would start in net against the Los Angeles Kings.
Round and round we go…
The staggering issue the Blackhawks continue to deal with is that neither of their netminders appears ready/willing/able to grab the top of the depth chart. Niemi has had a handful of opportunities to become the undisputed number one, and has struggled with each chance. Meanwhile, Cristobal Huet has defined mediocrity all season, especially since the beginning of the calendar year.
When the trade deadline passed as quietly as a far in an elevator for the Blackhawks, the stink every fan now has to deal with is the situation between the pipes. Niemi has shown flashed of ability to become the man, but hasn’t consistently brought that effort to the ice. Indeed, Niemi’s goals against average has increased in every month since November (1.44) by just enough that while December was still exceptional (1.74), January (2.41) and February (2.84) have allowed doubt to creep into the minds of Hawks fans.
And yet by comparison, Huet has been worse. Since November (1.97), Huet’s goals per game average has increased to decent in December (2.02) and poor in January (2.98). Since the Olympics, Huet’s average has been awful (3.56) with a save percentage (.831) to match.
Sunday’s performance against Detroit became the latest spark for Huet haters to call for Niemi to be the man. Quenneville isn’t as quick to place blame.
“I’m not blaming [Huet for the] last game. I just think Antti gets a chance to grab the net,” said Quenneville after Tuesday’s practice. “We have back-to-back games over the weekend. We have a lot of tough opponents as well, and we have a condensed schedule. So they’ll both see some time here, and we’re looking for both of them to take charge.”
Clearly, the talent surrounding the netminders on the Hawks is good enough to compete for, and win, the Stanley Cup this year. But the defensive play in front of the net has also left a lot to be desired lately. The PK has allowed a goal in seven of ten games since the start of February, and one of the three they didn’t was when the Islanders didn’t have a chance.
What has compounded the problem has been the number of penalties the Hawks have been forced to kill; since the start of February, the Hawks have had to kill 39 penalties in those ten games. That represents a ten percent increase in the number of penalties the Hawks are killing per night through January.
The Blackhawks have eight shut outs this season, four by both Huet and Niemi. However, the Hawks have only held their opponent off the scoreboard in one game in 2010. Meanwhile, the Hawks have allowed more than three goals nine times in only 25 games. Allowing at least four goals in 36 percent of a team’s games is clearly not good enough to win at the end of April.
On Wednesday, Niemi will face a Kings team that comes in averaging 3.75 goals per game since the Olympics. He’ll be tested, and Hawks fans hope he performs.