Niemi Steps Up, Defense Shows Up, Blackhawks Win in Calgary

The Blackhawks were coming off a two-game stretch in which they played arguably their best game of the year in Detroit, followed by perhaps their worst in Ottawa.

The Flames lost their previous game 9-1 at home to the San Jose Sharks.

Both teams were frustrated. Something had to give.

Not very often is a losing goaltender the game’s Number One star, but Mikka Kipprusoff absolutely earned the recognition on Thursday night, keeping a Flames team with zero offense over the last month at least relevant in the game before finally losing 3-1; Kipprusoff allowed two of the goals on 27 shots, many of which were in traffic, in the loss. The Flames have now scored only 21 goals in 11 January games, an average of less than two per contest.

For the Blackhawks, coach Joel Quenneville made the move in net to start Antti Niemi instead of a struggling Cristobal Huet, and he was rewarded with another solid effort from the Finnish rookie. Huet allowed just one goal on 20 shots, a power play score by Jamie Lundmark with less than two minutes left in the first period, and was solid all night. After the game, he received a vote of confidence from Quenneville, who told the media that there’s a good chance we’ll see more of Niemi moving forward based on how well he’s playing.

The scoring got started with Patrick Kane’s 21st goal of the season, a power play goal assisted by only Jonathan Toews half-way through the first period. The score would remain tied into the third period because of Kipprusoff’s exceptional play, and it wasn’t until 5:52 in the third that a rebound bounced off Ben Eager’s leg and fell past the Calgary goaltender that the Hawks finally had the lead back. Two would be all Niemi would need on Thursday night, but Duncan Keith scored the Hawks’ first empty-net goal of the season for good measure late to make the final score 3-1.

Niemi received a lot of help from active defense, though. The Hawks were credited with 17 blocked shots on Thursday night, led by a number of players with two. One of the players that blocked two shots was Brent Sopel, who’s been sticking parts of his body in front of pucks all year and has obviously paid the price a few times lately. Sopel left the ice after a blocked shot on Thursday and wouldn’t return; he played under nine minutes in the game, and Quenneville said he had the infamous “upper body injury” that would be further evaluated on Friday.

Tomas Kopecky also played a strong game for the Blackhawks, being credited with an assist, a team-leading three hits, one takeaway and was +1 for the night. The entire energy line was solid for the Hawks, with Colin Fraser also assisting on Eager’s game-winner and being credited with two blocked shots as well. The other surprise on the stat sheet was Patrick Sharp, who won 12 of 16 faceoffs in the game in arguably his best night as a center. His time in the circle could be coming to an end shortly, though, as Dave Bolland hopes to return in early February from his back surgery.

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