After not playing for almost a month, it would be understandable if Antti Niemi was a little rusty. Despite getting off to a solid start in the wake of Cristobal Huet’s early season struggles, Niemi has had to watch as the Hawks have buoyed their more expensive veteran’s confidence over the past few weeks.
Huet, to his credit has responded by playing magnificent hockey over the past couple weeks, making Niemi a lost man on the back of the bench. But in the middle of a long road trip, in the second half of back-to-back nights with games against tough opponents, Niemi was the man on Sunday night.
The Canucks had a great addition to their offense with Daniel Sedin returning after a long absence due to injury, and were hoping to get a big home win against a key conference opponent. Especially the team that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago.
On October 21, the Canucks came into the United Center and not only beat the Hawks on the scoreboard, but left them wounded as well. That was the night that Willie Mitchell knocked Jonathan Toews out of the lineup for a couple weeks with a concussion, and Brent Seabrook also suffered a concussion that night that would cost him a few games.
These two teams have a physical history, and Sunday night would be a great test for the young Hawks to see how strong the Hawks were on the road.
The Hawks, and Niemi, responded with a great, clutch performance.
Just as they did in Chicago back in October, the Canucks took the Hawks offense out of the game early and never let the Hawks find their groove. They held the Hawks to just 17 shots on goal, with only four coming in the third period. Many of those shots weren’t very good looks, and Roberto Luongo didn’t give up many rebound attempts.
Meanwhile, Vancouver did as good a job as any team this year of getting the puck on the Hawks net. The Blackhawks only allow an average of roughly 22 shots per game, but the Canucks got 30 shots on Niemi, with 12 coming in the first period alone. Niemi was up to the task, though, matching Luongo round for round.
It was obvious from the get-go that this would be a physical game. Nearly every time the whistle blew there was an exchange of words, and on a couple occasions there were offsetting penalties called; Ben Eager took two such penalties on the night. Eager got himself into two fights on the night, and came out looking like the victor both times. His fight with Rick Rypien in the first period saw Eager land a couple solid left handed shots to Rypien’s head.
As the game progressed it became clear that it was going to come down to which team found an opportunity and capitalized. Thankfully for the Blackhawks, Bryan Bickell’s headache from Saturday night was gone.
Bickell put back one of the few rebounds Luongo allowed all night just 72 seconds into the third period to give the Blackhawks the lead, and the defense handled the rest. Niemi notched his second career shutout in only six NHL starts, and the Hawks extended their winning streak to seven.
The Hawks have now swept the first half of their Circus Trip, and will have a couple days off before a big test in San Jose on Wednesday night. It hasn’t been made official yet, but Marian Hossa should make his first appearance for the Hawks against the Sharks.