On Friday afternoon, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville made a seemingly subtle announcement that could have a significant impact on who will be between the pipes for the Hawks in the playoffs.
In light of each goalies recent struggles, culminating with Cristobal Huet’s removal against Detroit, the starting job is completely up for grabs. After Antti Niemi’s strong performance against the Kings, Quenneville’s confidence appeared to be at least teased into favoring the rookie. However, after Thursday’s practiceQuenneville indicated that both Niemi and Huet would start one of this weekend’s games. On Saturday afternoon, the Blackhawks play in Philadelphia, followed by another late-morning start on Sunday in Chicago against the Washington Capitals.
Friday’s announcement may have shown that Quenneville is ready to go all in: Huet will start the Saturday matinee against the Flyers, and Quenneville said there’s a “good chance” Niemi will start Sunday against the NHL-best Capitals.
If the Hawks wanted to see whether or not Niemi is ready to be a playoff goalie, Sunday is the best opportunity on the schedule. Washington puts 33.1 shots on net per game, which ranks second in the NHL (the Blackhawks are first at 34.2). They are deeper than just superstar Alex Ovechkin, too; the Capitals have four players with more than 25 goals already and four with at least 66 points.
If the Hawks defense wanted a test, they’ll have their hardest on Sunday. The Capitals have the top offense in the league, scoring 3.88 goals per game; San Jose is second in the league, more than half a goal less per game (3.24) than Washington. The Caps also have the top power play unit in the league, converting 25.6 percent of their opportunities.
Sunday will be a nationally televised battle royale between the top offense in the league and the Blackhawks defense that, despite recent struggles, is still among the best in the game.
By starting Huet on Saturday, the Hawks will also get a good look at how the veteran responds to his recent failure against an Eastern Conference playoff team. Both goalies will be tested, but the decision to put Niemi on Sunday appears, at least on the surface, to indicate that the Hawks are ready to formally make him “the man” for the Cup run.