Blackhawks Confidential

Niemi, Toews pull a win out of the hat in New Jersey with a great magic act

Let's look at it this way, because you can spin this diamond in the rough around and perceive it from a lot of different angles--some of them less than sparkling and some of them rough as a corncob when you cut right to the core.

This was playoff-style hockey, tight, patient and deliberate hockey where big moves are often overshadowed by the small, opportune play. And the Blackhawks found a very miniature hole to explode through and surprised New Jersey 2-1 in a shootout to save valuable face when it appeared they would go to that Easter's showdown with Calgary in Chicago with more gooey egg dripping from their mugs.

The furious finish erased a flat-footed start when the Devils could have easily raced to a 3-0 lead in the opening period and never looked back. The final push wiped out their frustrating offensive effort, but you can count right now on some frustrating offensive performances to come in the playoffs for Chicago and this could offer some solace that the Hawks can still overcome and squeak by when it appears they are going to get the short end of the stick stuck up their wazoo like a corncob.

Of course, there won't be a shootout come the postseason. But there will be artful, athletic and ambitious Antti Niemi, whose spectacular play in goal--again--hopefully is just an inkling of what's to come when the pressure intensifies for the inexperienced player in crunch time.

There were some rarities. No penalties in a NHL game for one, the first time for that in nine years. Nice to see a game move along as quickly as this one with no stoppages and really none of those bogus fights some hockey fans live for. This was chessboard hockey.

Also a rarity was that the Hawks usually outgun everyone. But the Devils outshot them 33-26 here, and it's quite interesting to note that 13 of those Chicago shots were from defensemen hacking away from afar and New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur easily handled most of those chances.

And while it didn't end up mattering, it remains a cause for concern that their offense isn't an attack as much as it's a methodical scramble at times. But again, playoff hockey sometimes is like that, where pretty isn't as significant as persistence.

Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer had no shots. Patrick Kane had one. No rebounds came their way to penetrate Brodeur. It looked for a while like this would be good try, no positive results, which would have raised the anxiety level ever higher. No one needs moral victories to boost them with the postseason beckoning.

But coach Joel Quenneville pulled Niemi from net with 1:12 left and the extra attacker was really the difference. The Devils couldn't get the puck out high in their zone and the Hawks clogged the area, helped immensely by Marian Hossa punching the puck back into play. Hossa's innate ability to be Johnny-on-the-spot is one of his strengths.

Kris Versteeg got the handle on the puck after Hossa's timely assistance and flung a shot on goal and there was nitty-gritty, team MVP Toews fighting in front of the net. Toews didn't get a piece since the goal was handed to Versteeg, but this team captain was quite instrumental in the score getting tied 1-1 with 26 seconds left and showing who's really Johnny-on-the-spot.

Niemi was truly the player of the game, but Toews also earned a major piece of that honor. His opening shootout score past Brodeur's glove led the way to the win, and Niemi stopped three straight Devils to secure the decision, including that right pad rejection against  Zach Parise that was a gem.

"Patience was the topic tonight," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Our start was just OK."

No, it was horrible. New Jersey battered Niemi and won most of the battles, racing to an enormous 11-2 shot advantage in the opening minutes.

 Ilya Kovalchuk beat Niemi for a goal early when defenseman Dustin Byfuglien went on a chase behind the net and deserted his post at the crease, allowing Patrik Elias to find an always dangerous Kovalchuk and taking away Niemi's support system.

But, you know what, Byfuglien was pretty good the rest of the game. So we won't fault the wandering lug too much for this one letdown.

 "We were definitely standing around too much," Q said of the first 15 minutes.

Thanks to Niemi, it didn't matter. He solidified his unannounced new role as the Hawks' official postseason starter in net.

Shoot, even the great Brodeur fed a perfect pass in the first period to Tomas Kopecky, who didn't score only because defenseman Marty Skoula saved his goalie with a shot block.

The stubborn Q still refuses to name Niemi as his guy. But he gave him a high compliment afterward.

 "Not too many things bother him," Q said.

And when's the last time anyone said that of Cristobal Huet?

I guess we can feel fortunate we don't have to criticize the Hawks power play. Maybe after getting a night off, that power play can regroup and bite the Flames Sunday.

When he needed some offense in the third period, Q reunited Toews and Kane on the same line with Hossa. Kane showed some jump throughout the game and had a decent attempt to score in the second after he swiped the puck and unloaded on Brodeur.

Kane almost got a stick on a Hossa shot in the third period that could have been a goal. But talk about rarities. Kane has now gone four straight games without a point and that is a bad trend that has to end soon and Q has to figure out this line matchups in the final days of an amazing regular season.

Dean McAmmond could have won the game for New Jersey in overtime. He had Niemi all to himself at the right crease, but couldn't lift the puck, shooting it into his left pad. We remember that Dean McAmmond in Chicago, don't we?

This was an important band-aid game. The Hawks were able to win two out of three on the journey and staunch the continued bloodletting against a Devils team that is having plentiful problems of their own winding down their strong season in a worrisome manner.

The Hawks still have some housekeeping matters to clean up. But that's so much easier to accomplish off a win than what was 26 seconds away from being an ugly loss.

It's so important now that this last-second salvage operation not be wasted. They must build off this game and be so much better Sunday as they try to put a bow on a pretty package of a season rather than continue to tie a noose around their neck.

People keep looking for Huet to get one game before the regular season ends. But I figure if Q decides to play Huet Sunday, the crowd might storm the bench and hang him.

Be a hell of a story. But I guess we should be content with riding Niemi as far as he goes. If not for him, this game is a loss. If not for him, this season is a nightmare.

No reason to go anti on Antti for the rest of the way--and hopefully that's the Stanley Cup.



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borg said:


I didn't see much of the game, so I don't know what to think of the performance. However, I can say that's it's beyond refreshing to steal a game rather than have one stolen.

And it should be noted that this was the Hawks' 3rd game in 4 nights all on the road.

Oh, and the Caps narrowly avoided a 4th straight loss when they scored late to edge the Thrashers yesterday. All teams get in the doldrums at some point. i just hope Johnsson comes back for the playoffs. Having him and Campbell out is is hurting this team on both ends.

IncineRAYtor said:

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I wasn't able to watch the game, as it was blacked out in the SW Michigan area. How the hell do games get blacked out when a subscriber pays for the NHL package. So I sat patiently in front of my computer watching the updates on

Interesting that you should mention the amount of long shots coming from the Hawks defense. One thing the nhl website shows, is where all the shots on goal originated from. In the Hawks case, at least 20% of their shots came from the blue line in the hopes of a rebound. This just doesn't happen in the Devil's case. Almost all their shots came from the top of the circle or closer. Does this really mean anything? I'm not sure. Is one way more effective than the other, and if so, which is better? It may be interesting to track our shot selection tendencies overall, and those of our opponents.

In any event, nice to see us get a break and have something go our way for a change. After the extended funk this team has been in, we all need something exciting to build up our hopes again.

Dave Morris said:


Mike, an outstanding game (as you said), and a playoff-quality performance from Handy Andy (as you predicted).

(BTW watched the MSG Network feed of this one...the informed wit of Mike Emrich doing the play-by-play should serve as a lesson to the histrionics of the current crop of playcallers.)

Chico Resch, Stanley Cup goalie (as you know), and former teammate of Joel Quenneville in Jersey (where Q was known as 'Herbie' for reasons unknown even to Chico) stated this after the match: "Niemi just made a believer out of me. They've found the goalie who can carry them far in the playoffs."

There you go, eh.

Mike Kiley said:


Ask Chico for me how the rest of the Marx Brothers are getting along. I'm a big fan.

beaverwarrior said:


That Devil goal was just as much Kane's fault as it was Byfuglien's. If the Kaner was actually moving instead of standing and watching from the right circle then Kovalchuk wouldn't have been so wide open in slot.

VegasHawksFan said:


Giving up one goal like that up to a team like NJ is much less of a worry then the crap they were giving up to Columbus. For once, the Hawks were the team that played a disciplined game and hung around long enough to steal it. I'm not entirely convinced yet that the struggles of March forged this team into a cup winner, but the progress is encouraging.

Mike Kiley said:


Just as hard to see a likely Cup finish for the Hawks from here as it was really to see a Western Conference finals likelihood last season. No question some loose ends are hanging out, but maybe the Hawks are better than appearances for the last month. We might as well look at the positives. Life's too short, not to mention too many postseasons in the life of Chicago sports.

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