By Brady Stiff
Coming out of the Olympic break, the Chicago Blackhawks had a back-to-back on the schedule: in New York against the Islanders, and at home against the Oilers.
The standings told me that these would be two great games for the Hawks to shake off the rust and pick up where they left off before the Olympics. If the playoffs started today, neither team would be in the playoffs, although the Islanders are just five points out of the last spot in the East. The Oilers, on the other hand, should start thinking about next year.
Tuesday night’s game started out great. The Hawks scored a couple of goals in the first period, and took a 2-1 lead into the intermission. The second period, however, was one that the Hawks ought to learn from. The Islanders scored four goals, and Antti Niemi was pulled not even three minutes into the second. Cristobal Huet wasn’t much better. The Hawks scored one in the third to pull within two, but that was it.
After the game, they were admittedly not happy with their performance, but I think it was to be somewhat expected. Most guys hadn’t played a real game for two weeks, and the Olympians were tired. Duncan Keith called Monday a “day off”, even though him, Seabrook, Toews, and Kane flew 3,000 miles from Vancouver to New York. Marian Hossa had a terrible game, simply whiffing on a couple of shots, and the goaltenders weren’t sharp at all. I think they get a pass for one game though.
Last night’s game was much better all-around. There was some disappointment among Hawks fans that they stood pat at the trade deadline, but as Stan Bowman said, they’re happy with the team they have. Why shouldn’t they be? Going into last night’s game they were just two points behind the Sharks for best of the West, and by the end of the night, they found themselves on top. After a scoreless first, the Hawks for the most part played well the rest of the way. A couple of turnovers in the defensive zone led to Oiler goals, probably shots that Huet should have stopped, though. The Hawks dominated the third period as well, scoring three times.
Part of the Hawks’ game is dominating the shots on goal column. That’s exactly what they did last night, out-shooting Edmonton 47-14, and the night before, leading 44-23. Common sense says that if you blitz the opposing goalie, you’re going to get a couple past him. It’s not just wristers from the blue line either. The Hawks find themselves getting quality scoring chances more often than not.
So like I said, it seems to me like they needed a game to get their “game legs” back under them, to get used to game conditions again. They’ll be tested the next couple of games, as they take on Roberto Luongo and the Canucks tomorrow night, and the Red Wings on Sunday. The good thing is both those games are at the United Center, where the Hawks are 24-6-2.
The biggest problem for the team, though, is goaltending. I guess you could say, “Hey, they’re leading the Western Conference. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” To some extent that’s true, but I don’t think the main reason they are where they are is because of their goaltending. Neither guy, Huet or Niemi, seems to be able to grab and keep the number one job. Each guy will play well for a two or three game stretch, then have a really bad game.
The Hawks are the sort of team that can overcome that, though, because of how much they can score. They’ve got the best goal differential in the West, are tied with San Jose for the most goals scored, and have given up the least amount of goals in the West. The fact that they’ve given up the least amount of goals is more a product of their puck-possession style of play than a product of excellent goaltending. When it comes to the playoffs, they’ll need rock-solid goaltending.
I think both of these guys has the ability to get hot at the right time, but the experience factor might play a role. Niemi is an unproven rookie, and Huet didn’t play until Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals last year. He allowed five goals in Game 4 before being pulled.
They say you’re only as good as your weakest link, and it’s not good for a hockey team’s weak link to be in the net.