Chicago Sun-Times

A net issue

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ch.jpgThe Blackhawks have always stood by their goaltending -- from the top on down.

General manager Stan Bowman has.

Coach Joel Quennville has.

And so have the players -- the ones not minding nets.

But, it's still seen as the one true weakness of a team fully capable of winning the Stanley Cup by analysts, various media and fans.

Why? Well, there are several reasons. In general, Cristobal Huet looks lost at times; he gives up too many "soft" goals; and he seems to be out of position. He lacks playoff experience and so does backup Antti Niemi.

But since Bowman didn't make a move by the trade deadline, Huet and Niemi -- love them or hate them -- are what the Hawks are left to contend with. They are all the Hawks have to rely on.

The thing is the Hawks wanted to rely on one of them for this stretch run and the playoffs. They didn't want to keep switching it up. That's why Quenneville gave Huet the chance to "take control."

But after starting Huet the past three games, Quenneville is turning to Niemi on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings. So it's clear the Hawks still need to figure out who their No. 1 is, which could be disastrous.

"[Niemi] started the first game after [the Olympic break]," Quenneville said Tuesday after practice. "He gets the chance to get back into the net, and we'll see how he responds."

Still, Quenneville recognized the need for either Huet or Niemi to seize control of the Hawks' net.

"It's important that somebody establishes himself and takes charge in the net," Quenneville said. "I think both guys can play. Huey weren't not blaming him for last game [against the Detroit Red Wings].

"Antti gets the chance to grab the net. We've got back-to-back games on the weekend and we've got a lot of tough opponents as well and a condensed schedule. They'll both see some time here, and we're looking for both of them to take charge."

Statistically speaking, neither Huet or Niemi have a save percentage to write home about. Niemi has a .909 save percentage, good enough for 27th best in the league. Huet has a .898 save percentage -- which is not good by any means.

There has only been one Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in the past 10 finals that went into the playoffs with a save percentage lower than .900: the Carolina Hurricanes' Cam Ward. But Ward's .882 save percentage in the regular season improved to .920 in the playoffs.

Sure, the Hawks' goals-against average is still very good. But that has more to do with the Hawks having a strong puck-possession game and a great defense. When the Hawks lose control and the defense breaks down, teams like the Red Wings - you know, playoff-bound teams with a ton of skill and experience - will take advantage. Just look at what happened Sunday.

This is where goaltending comes in. The Hawks needed Huet to step up and make a big save on Sunday. It could have changed the whole course of the game against the Red Wings. He just didn't do that -- he really hasn't all season -- and was replaced by Niemi, who has had his fair share of big stops this year.

"Antti is getting a little more opportunity here at the end," Quenneville said. "We'll see how it sorts itself out."

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Adam L. Jahns is a native Chicagoan hailing from the Far Northwest Side. Jahns has been with the Sun-Times for more than four years, covering the Hawks, Bears, Cubs, Sox and high schools.

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This page contains a single entry by Adam L. Jahns published on March 9, 2010 1:12 PM.

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