Blackhawks Confidential

Niemi shoots for the hat trick Saturday, but our goalie debate beats Washington's net loss

niemiblues.jpgWould you rather be the Chicago Blackhawks or the Washington Capitals? Pick your preferred poision, because both teams kill off the opposition in different ways.

Just six points seperates these possible Stanley Cup foes at the top of the NHL standings. But there are key contrasts and similarities between them in many categories.

Through Thursday's games, the Capitals had the second worst goals-against average at 2.8 of the league's top 15 teams. Only one worse was Pittsburgh (2.87), the defending champs. That should be further proof that this could be the year the Hawks break through at long last.

The Blackhawks have the best GAA in the league at 2.25, but we can't quit arguing in Chicago over whether Andy Niemi should play over Cristobal Huet or if any title chances we may have will be ruined if Huet is the go-to goalie for the playoffs.

The debate rages on with coach Joel Quenneville's decision on Friday to start Niemi for a third straight game Saturday against Atlanta. If Niemi does well and wins a third straight while facing the punchless, clueless Thrashers, whose defense is non-existent, does he get the start again Sunday against Columbus in the final game before the Olympic break?

Or would we be sending Huet to a couple weeks of mental anguish over what his role is on the team? Does Huet have to get the start Sunday regardless of whether Niemi wins or not? Do we need to need to call Huet's therapist and have him rinkside if Niemi rolls to four straight wins?

Niemi is only a bad performance in a single period away from being yanked, as he was after allowing three first-period goals to Vancouver. It will be interesting if Huet uses this as motivation or whether he drops his head and stews, which he seems to relish at times.

Remember general manager Stan Bowman claiming last summer that Huet would shine more as the clear No. 1, knowing Nikolai Khabibulin was gone. Hogwash then, hogwash now. If they aren't telling us the truth all the time, what makes you think they are any of the time?

Try a little straight talk, fellas, good for the soul and for making the franchise appear transparent in its public speaking.

As long as Huet treats this as a healthy competition and comes back strong when he gets his chance again, this appears to be a win-win situation for all. No need to name the starting goalie for the playoffs for a little while yet.

And no one is more thankful for that than the Capitals.

Imagine if we had the Caps' goalie situation, where goalies Jose Theodore, Michal Nuevirth and the just-returned Semyon Varlamov have combined to create their share of havoc, if that really is the proper term after Washington recently saw their 14-game winning streak ended.

But Theodore's GAA is 2.94 in 34 games and his save percentage .906, while Neuvirth is 2.75 in 17 games with a .914 and Varlamov (who has coped with injuries) is 2.44 and .916.

Sounds like all the Caps need to choose which one will be in net is to have them all draw from the deck and high card starts.

Their combined frustration makes Huet's 2.29 and .903, as well as Niemi's 1.98 and .920, look positively awesome. Sometimes you have to take a peek at your neighbor's yard to see how well you have it.

Of course, the neighbor has an abundance of riches on display with a league-best 240 goals and an army of sharpshooters led by Alexander The Great. Hard to match Ovechkin. Patrick Kane really isn't an answer for that.

The Hawks are 57 goals behind Washington and have played two fewer games. They are 21 goals back of them in power-play production.

On the other hand, the Hawks have allowed 38 fewer goals than the Caps and 21 fewer on the power play. Chicago's penalty kill is six percentage points better than Washington, their power play six points worse.

These clubs seem to cancel out each other in various ways, one strength countering the other's strength most of the way down the line.

Faceoffs? caps have won 51.7 per cent, the Hawks 52.6. Shots per game? Washington averages 32.6, the Hawks 33.7. On and on it goes....

Except goaltending. There, the Hawks' pair is far superior to the Caps' Three Stooges act. Makes you wonder if we shouldn't get down on our knees every night and Thank God for Huet and Niemi. Or should I now say Niemi and Huet? Who's on first?

Maybe all of those Huet detractors should be forced to watch every Caps' game to see how good Chicago has it. Maybe if it's Caps-Hawks in the championship, the goaltending will be what sees us through.

I had to laugh to read coach Bruce Boudreau's irate reactions to Thursday night's 6-5 loss in Ottawa, just 24 hours after the 14-game win streak went bye-bye.

There have been a lot of people preaching that we should all relax and enjoy ourselves in Chicago, even during the Hawks' first sustained spurt of uneven play that began with the completion of their 8-game trip in Carolina in January.

The Hawks have been good at times, but they have been less focused for entire games and failed to sustain pressure at both ends as well as they had for so long. But I think any criticisms of the Hawks can be forgiven based on how well Boudreau tore into his club and Varlamov after the Senators' loss.

There were built in excuses. Varlamov rusty. Caps tired. Road game. On and on. Boudreau wasn't having any of that, as coach Q probably would have.

"Ugly display," he said in the Washington Post. "You're not going to win when you give up six goals and maybe five are bad ones and our "D' can't make a play. It's awful.

"I don't think (Varlamov) was ready to play. He had 12 days of practice and a (minor-league) game under his belt. It's his responsibility to be ready. When you say rusty, it's an excuse.

"And excuses aren't tolerated. The puck's going through his legs? He's been making that save since he was 7 years old."

Quenneville rarely scorches his players in public. Just a far different coaching technique than Boudreau used by being upset, especially with the 14-game win streak hardly vanished from his rearview mirror.

"I've been telling them every frigging night about bad habits," Boudreau fumed, claiming it all started during the final few wins of that streak. "The break can't come soon enough for me, where we can get five or six days of practice and get back on track here."

The man's on a mission that may bring him in conflict with Chicago. If so, our goalies and defense has to be frigging better than their frigging miserable trio at crunch time. And they should be based on what we've witnessed so far.

Or else we might lose 7-1 to the Caps every game.



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TonyO said:

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What has anyone else seen/heard?
According to published reports, the Chicago Blackhawks have traded defenseman Cam Barker to the Minnesota Wild for veteran defenseman Kim Johnsson and prospect Nick Leddy.

beaverwarrior said:


Yeppers, the Hawks are renting Johnsson for the rest of this season as per TSN...

iplagitr said:


Unless I missed it, one big stat that's not mentioned in this piece is shots-against. The Hawks are #1 in league allowing only 24.3 shots per game. The Caps are way down in 20th place, allowing 31.1 shots. Surely that accounts from some of the disparity between the respective teams' goalie averages. Nonetheless, big kudos to all the Hawks for playing a determined 2-way game: #1 in the league in BOTH shots-for and shots-against!

borg said:


I would take the Caps' problems in a heartbeat. One, Varlamov has been terrific when healthy and now he's back. That solves issue #1 for them. They lead the league in goals scored by a mile and have the biggest gamebreaker in the sport. And they play in the pathetic Eastern Conference where the only real threat to them is Pittsburgh.

The Hawks, on the other hand, are stuck with Huet (Problem #1). They don't finish particularly well (Problem #2). And they play in the West where San Jose, Vancouver and possibly Detroit lurk. Plus, the Avs and Coyotes are better than all but 2 or 3 teams in the East.

borg said:


"Niemi is only a bad performance in a single period away from being yanked, as he was after allowing three first-period goals to Vancouver."

Queneville said after that game that pulling Niemi was an attempt at changing the momentum and waking his team up. They left Niemi out to dry in that 1st period.

I'm sure Q realizes Niemi, although a bit inconsistent, has stolen 4 games already while Huet has stolen none in more than double the starts.

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