Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told the media Wednesday that Antti Niemi will start in goal against Edmonton. The news isn’t a total surprise, but does come with some questions and consequences.
Cristobal Huet has struggled to begin the season, making Niemi the newest popular-for-little-reason athlete in Chicago. This title has historically been reserved for the backup quarterback on the Bears, but it appears Niemi has now become the winner of “the unknown is better than what we’re watching” contest.
It doesn’t help Huet’s cause when Niemi’s first start of the season was a 4-0 shut out of the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, and he was solid protecting the nylon for the final 45 minutes of Monday’s now-legendary comeback win against Calgary.
Fans have quickly forgotten how easily the Flames scored two goals against Niemi to extend their lead to five on Monday night. The boo birds reserved their vocal chords’ strength for Huet.
The biggest potential consequence from Niemi starting on Wednesday is that Huet has an allegedly fragile psyche. There were whispers last year that his confidence was shallow because he didn’t keep the number one goalie job away from Nikolai Khabibulin, and now he’s again struggling to keep the role of top goalie for the Hawks.
The next question is regarding the confidence of the players and coaches in the locker room. While Huet certainly didn’t face many shots before he had allowed three goals on Monday, he’s stopping only 83 percent of the shots he’s faced so far.
Having attended the game on Monday personally, I can attest to the difference in defensive intensity shown by the Blackhawks in front of the goalie from Huet’s time to Niemi’s. The Flames only got 10 shots on goal between the second and third periods combined, and not many of those were quality looks.
I’m certainly not calling into question the effort from the players surrounding the goalie. But reality is that the defense was more physical and gave up fewer opportunities while Niemi was in goal. Was the change in goal the wake-up call the team needed?
Finally, which of these items played a role in Quenneville’s decision to play Niemi on Wednesday? He mentioned in his remarks to the media that, because of the schedule and Niemi’s performance against Florida, he was going to start one of the games this week no matter what happened on Saturday or Monday.
But this is the game on the calendar that must have been circled for Huet to prove himself as the viable replacement for Khabibulin; the Bulin Wall will be watching from the other side of the ice. Head to head is the perfect opportunity for Huet to quiet his critics, but Quenneville isn’t going to give him the chance.
It will be Niemi in goal tonight. We’ll see how this plays out moving forward on Madison Street.