This past week, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said
he wanted one of his goaltenders to take charge as the team headed
down the stretch.
Shutting down the league’s most prolific offense would certainly
help Antti Niemi.
After watching Cristobal Huet absorb a tough loss, Niemi is
expected to get another chance to impress as the Eastern
Conference-leading Washington Capitals visit Sunday.
The Blackhawks (44-17-5) appear headed toward their first
division title in 17 years, but their goaltending has been
inconsistent the past couple of months. That prevented them from
taking advantage of chances to pass San Jose for the Western
Conference lead, and their deficit grew to three points
The 34-year-old Huet has struggled at times since signing a
four-year contract worth $22.5 million before the 2008-09 season,
and is 6-5-2 with a 3.10 goals-against average since Jan. 8.
That seemed to open the door for the 26-year-old Niemi to take
over, but while he’s won four times in his last six appearances,
he’s also posted a 3.32 GAA over that span.
However, he had a solid effort Wednesday night at home against
Los Angeles except for a 1:52 stretch in which he gave up
consecutive goals. Patrick Sharp bailed him out by scoring 2:08
into overtime of a 3-2 win.
The Blackhawks could use another such effort from Niemi, who has
never faced the Capitals, after Saturday’s 3-2 loss in
Philadelphia. Marian Hossa gave Chicago a one-goal lead with 7:09
remaining, but the Flyers took advantage of defensive breakdowns to
score twice in the final 2:04, including Chris Pronger’s winning
goal with 2.1 seconds left.
Quenneville, though, wouldn’t blame Huet for the defeat.
“The goaltending was great tonight on both ends,” he said. “They
did their job. That’s why it was a tough ending. It’s a frustrating
loss, but we’re excited about tomorrow’s game and we’ll move
The Capitals, meanwhile, will try to avoid their fourth loss in
five road games and sixth in 10 overall following a 17-1-0
Despite that drop-off, Washington clinched its third straight
Southeast Division title Thursday night and holds a comfortable
14-point lead over Pittsburgh in the race for the Eastern
Conference’s top seed.
Like the Blackhawks, the Capitals (45-14-9) have struggled at
times defensively, but they’ve compensated with an NHL-best 262
goals – a whopping 3.85 per contest.
As expected, two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin has led the way
and the league’s points leader is five shy of topping 100 for the
fourth time in his five seasons. Ovechkin has scored only two goals
in the past nine games but has recorded six points in the last
three, including two assists in Friday night’s 3-2 loss to visiting
Like Quenneville, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau wouldn’t lay
the defeat solely on goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
“We got outworked, and we didn’t play the way we’re capable of
playing, and that’s the reason we lost. It had nothing to do with
goaltending,” Boudreau said. “We should be able to score – with
that lineup – three goals a game.”
It was Boudreau’s team that outplayed the Blackhawks in last
season’s meeting at the Verizon Center. After Jose Theodore allowed
two goals in the first 11:41, the Capitals responded with four
unanswered scores in the 4-2 victory, including two by
Washington, though, has won once in its last four trips to the
United Center and lost 5-0 in its previous game there March 19,
2008. Sharp and Jonathan Toews scored two of the Blackhawks’ four
first-period goals in that win.