Capitals-Blackhawks Preview

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

Saturday.

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

ahead.”

The Capitals, meanwhile, will try to avoid their fourth loss in

five road games and sixth in 10 overall following a 17-1-0

stretch.

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

Tampa Bay.

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

Ovechkin.

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.