Not Quite An Olympic Effort

Maybe the Blackhawks that will be back in Vancouver for the Olympics were a little excited to see the city. Maybe Antti Niemi was a little jacked up for his chance to fully grab the reins as the team’s number one netminder. Maybe the travel is finally getting to the Blackhawks.

Lots of excuses, none of which mean anything in the standings.

Roberto Luongo thoroughly dominated the Blackhawks, stopping 43 of 44 shots as Vancouver defeated the Blackhawks 5-1. As has been the trend from the Canucks, they took as many shots at/after the whistle as they could in an attempt to get into the heads of the Hawks, which hasn’t seemed to rattle the Blackhawks as much as it’s banged them up this year.

Of course, it was back in October that the Hawks lost both Ben Eager and Jonathan Toews in a game against the Canucks. On Saturday night, there were a number of liberties taken again by the home team in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score would indicate.

Niemi was yanked off the ice after allowing three goals on only 12 shots in the first period, and he certainly didn’t get any help from the skaters in front of him. As we saw in Ottawa, poor skating and mediocre passing killed the Hawks early, and against a goaltender like Luongo, giving up two cheap goals is usually enough. Cristobal Huet replaced Niemi and, despite a few good saves in the middle of the second period, didn’t end up doing much better than Niemi; Huet allowed two goals on 16 shots in his two periods of work. Overall, the Hawks only allowed five goals on only 28 shots. Not good.

Also a part of the Hawks game that suffered from lazy passing and poor skating was the offense. The spacing was miserable on all four of the Hawks’ power play opportunities, none of which they would score on despite having a clear advantage in chances.

Even a rare fight from Andrew Ladd, who landed a fantastic shot with his left hand in a brief altercation, couldn’t spark the team.

Something that might contribute to the poor effort could be the amount of time the Hawks will be spending in Vancouver; the team will spend three days in the Olympic city, the longest stop of the trip. Again, that’s nothing more than an excuse that doesn’t cover the fact that the team showed up flat on Saturday night and lost a game.

Jonathan Toews would put in the Hawks’ first, and only, goal in the middle of the third period, cutting the lead to 3-1 and giving at least a little breath to the Hawks offense. But Huet allowed a back-breaking fourth goal only 32 seconds later to Henrik Sedin, his second of the game, pulling the plug on any momentum the Hawks hoped to capture. Huet would allow another late goal to Henrik’s brother, Daniel, to finish the scoring for the night. The Sedins and Alex “I Pull Hair” Burrows all ended up with three points on the night.

What will become an interesting story to continue following for the Blackhawks as the trip continues will be the continuing issues in net; Niemi was given the opportunity to step up and earn more time between the pipes with his first consecutive starts of the season on Saturday, but his performance in the first period and subsequent removal from the game obviously indicates that he wasn’t good enough for coach Joel Quenneville’s taste in the game. However, the numbers weren’t good again for Huet, including the crucial fourth goal so quickly after the Hawks finally got on the board, that there is clearly more work to be done for the Blackhawks in net.

In interviews for a number of newspapers in Chicago on Friday and Saturday, GM Stan Bowman indicated that the Hawks are keeping all of their options open on the trade market and will certainly be able, financially, to add a player if needed. Brent Sopel’s been banged up lately, and was run into the boards late in the game on an icing play (another cheap shot from Vancouver), and the questionable play from Cam Barker since returning from injury makes the depth on the blue line another issue that might be addressed between now and the March 3 trade deadline.

With their victory, the Canucks jumped from sixth to fourth in the Western Conference.  

The Blackhawks now have just three games left on the trip, with two seemingly easy games surrounding a big trip into San Jose that could carry President’s Trophy implications. The Blackhawks have now played as many games as the Sharks, 51, and trail San Jose by two points for the top spot in both the conference and the NHL. Tuesday night the Hawks will play in Edmonton, and then they’ll play at Carolina next Saturday.

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