Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Correspondent
In last year’s NHL Playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks were the beneficiary of some really good goaltending from now-departed Nikolai Khabibulin. When he went down in the Conference Finals with an injury, the momentum of the series seemed to shift irreversibly over to the Detroit Red Wings. Cristobal Huet came in and did his best, but he was beaten into submission in Game 4, and the series was pretty much over at that point.
This incident illustrates just how fragile the goalie position can be in the NHL playoffs. Whether it is an injury (as in the Khabibulin/Huet case), or just simply poor play (the Theodore/Varlamov situation for Washington last year), the man between the pipes is the most important one on the ice come playoff time. It may be a tired refrain, but it is no less a true one: as the goalie goes, so goes the team.
With that fact in mind, the Blackhawks have opted to go with rookie goaltender Antti Niemi in this year’s playoffs over the more veteran Cristobal Huet. The move is certainly an interesting one, as the young goalie has zero playoff experience and has only started 37 games total in his NHL career. He did have an outstanding regular season, going 26-7-4 with a 2.25 GAA and seven shutouts, but as any pundit worth his salt will tell you, the pressure cooker of playoff hockey is a completely different animal than that of the regular season.
So the real question becomes, are the Blackhawks going to be alright without the services of a veteran goaltender? In last year’s run, they had a goalie who had won a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay, but they are without that luxury this year. Can Antti Niemi, a 26 year old rookie from Finland, help the Hawks to the promised land that they haven’t been to in nearly 40 years?
1. More Often Than Not, Niemi Is On
Consistency counts for something in the NHL, and Niemi is a perfect example of that. He brings a high level of play just about every time he starts in goal, and he can help out in relief duty as well. His performance against the Calgary Flames in a relief role helped the Hawks erase a 5-0 deficit and win 6-5 in one of the biggest comebacks in NHL history.
He maintains a level-headed approach as well when he is playing, and an even keel demeanor is something that a certain Chicago netminder (cough, Huet, cough) certainly lacks. He displays a maturity that is certainly beyond his years, and his temperament is certainly an asset at this late stage of the game.
2. He Steps Up When the Challenge Is the Biggest
Niemi has played some of the most important games on the Hawks schedule this season, and he has performed admirably when the harsh glare of the spotlight has been brightest.
His more memorable performances include a 1-0 shutout of the Vancouver Canucks back in November, in which he stopped all 30 shots that the Canucks threw at him. These weren’t your run of the mill shots either. These were quality opportunities that forced Niemi to make some of the most acrobatic saves that he had made all year, and he did all of this despite not having started a game in 16 days. So much for the rust factor.
13 days later, against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Niemi had another stellar performance, stopping 32 of 33 shots and defeating the Pens in OT at the Igloo. Later in December, Niemi shutout the Red Wings with a 30 save effort as well.
Shutouts against Phoenix and the Kings in March also bolster his resume as a clutch performer, and his 2-1 shootout defeat of the Devils near the end of the season was the final exclamation point. Needless to say, Niemi can step up in situations that the team needs him too, and this quality is important when a goalie standing on his head can turn an entire series.
1. No Playoff Experience is a Killer
There is a reason rookies rarely win the Stanley Cup: the cauldron of the playoffs is hotter than anything these guys have ever experienced in their hockey playing lives.
Yes, Niemi may have had a great deal of success in the regular season, but another rookie with a stellar rookie campaign struggled mightily when the playoffs rolled around. Steve Mason, who had 10 shutouts last season en route to the Calder Trophy, had a miserable postseason series against Detroit. He stopped 87% of the shots he faced, and gave up an average of 4.26 goals per game. Not exactly a Calder-worthy performance, but it just illustrates how difficult it is to play against the cream of the crop for several games in a row.
Another young netminder with some issues of his own last year was Semyon Varlamov. He played an excellent series against the New York Rangers in the first round, and then turned around and was scorched by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. His defense may have done him no favors against the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but he wasn’t able to stand on his head much at all in that series. His Game 4 and 7 performances were particularly putrid.
With last year’s crop of young goaltenders as an example, it’s not a stretch to think that Niemi could head down a similar path when faced with the great opposition and gritty determination he will go up against in every single game.
2. A Goalie Is Only As Good As the Defense in Front of Him
The Blackhawks’ defense has been a hit or miss proposition in recent weeks. Earlier in the season (i.e., before the Olympic break went and torched everything) the Hawks were as solid as they came on the blue line. They didn’t allow many shots, and the second chance opportunities that teams thrive on just weren’t there.
Then, through a combination of sloppy play and injuries, the Hawks began a nose dive in the quality of their defensive play. Whether it was an inability to clear the front of the net, or an overzealous desire to over-pursue the puck, the Hawks began to make careless mistakes, and it cost them quite a few games in the month after the break.
Yes, the Hawks did win six of their final seven games going into the playoffs, but the habits they had put on display on the defensive side of the puck weren’t exactly those you want to carry into the postseason. If a defense gives up 40 shots a game like the Capitals did against the Penguins last year, it’s going to be next to impossible for the goaltender to keep up.
If Chicago reverts back to what they were doing before this recent stretch of good play, then Niemi will be a sitting duck in the blue paint, and teams will pick him apart.
If there is going to be a rookie goalie capable of backstopping a team to a Cup, it’s going to be a guy like Niemi. He is downright unflappable, and he saves his best performances for the biggest stages imaginable. Whether or not that is just a regular season trend remains to be seen, but the fact remains that he has had a great deal of success against playoff bound teams this season, and he has the confidence necessary to do it.
Joel Quenneville undoubtedly made the right decision in going with the less erratic Niemi in the postseason, and if he can continue his play that he exhibited during the regular season, the Hawks should be just fine on the defensive side of the ice, and be a real threat to take home the hardware at the end of the year.