Antti Niemi looked good in Thursday’s victory in Calgary. That’s saying something when you take into consideration that Niemi’s counterpart in the game, Miika Kiprusoff was amazing at the other end of the ice. Kiprusoff did for the Flames what Huet haters like Jeremy Roenick said needs to be done for the Hawks in the playoffs if they expect to win the Stanley Cup; Kiprusoff stood on his head for 59 minutes.
Thursday morning I said that this sort of ‘goaltenders win the cup’ reasoning is terribly flawed. I defended Huet, who has played poorly in his last ten games, and didn’t give rookie goaltender Antti Niemi the upper hand on playing time for the rest of the season. A day later, I still feel that my analysis is spot-on. Thursday night’s game was a perfect example of my reasoning.
First, let’s start with Niemi. As stated previously, Niemi was good while Kiprusoff was great. Niemi made one or two very good saves while Kiprusoff was a human highlight reel that will play over and over again in the nightmares John Madden will endure for the rest of the Blackhawks’ roadtrip. Yet, the Blackhawks won the game. Kiprusoff gave his team a chance, but was hit with 28 shots on goal. Niemi saw only 20 and his one goal was given up on the powerplay when he was unable to find the puck in his crease. The best goaltender doesn’t always win, but the best team usually does. That truth applies for both the regular season and the playoffs. Sure, there have been goaltending performances in the postseason that have carried teams nearly singlehandedly, but Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Nabokov and Kiprusoff – the best goalies in the league not named Brodeur – have a total of zero Stanley Cups amongst themselves. The fact is that the best goaltender in hockey is the one that never has to make a save. And while that is an impossible standard to have, it is still true.
The Blackhawks did not defeat the Flames on Thursday because Antti Niemi played better than Kiprusoff. No, the Blackhawks beat the Flames because the Blackhawks team played better than the Flames team. Winning in hockey is a complex formula of team offense and team defense. A goaltender is part of that team defense. Thursday night Kiprusoff was, in essence, the entire Flames defense. He stood on his head, ruined John Madden’s week, was awarded the first star, but he still lost the game. Could Cristobal Huet or Antti Niemi perform the same heroics? Perhaps. Both certainly could not do it for 16 wins in the playoffs. Nor could Kiprusoff.
Luckily for the Blackhawks, Niemi or Huet do not have to put up first star performances night in and night out for Chicago to get a win. That’s because the Blackhawks team defense, in front of the goalie, is the best in the league. Can a goaltender steal you a game, or two, in a playoff series? They sure could, but so could a great team defense. The Blackhawks allow less than 24 shots per game to reach their goaltenders, nearly four less than the next best team, the Kings. You could stick Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala or Alex Auld behind a defense like the Blackhawks’ and still win the division and a playoff round or two. Hell, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008 with a very similar defense and goalie situation to what the Blackhawks have now. Sometimes it might seem like Huet and Niemi are in a low class, mixed up with the Aulds and Raycrofts, but, when the dust of despair settles and one sees more clearly, they will see that they are both upgrades.
The hockey formula for winning has a theoretically finite amount of points one can assign to each category. If you are good on offense, you lose something on defense. A good goaltender can cover up for a bad defense and a bad goaltender can be saved by a good defense. Along those lines, one should take a look at the top teams in the NHL, the Devils, Capitals, Sharks and Sabres. Amongst those teams, its easy to see why they are successful, as the balance of offense to defense is clear. The Capitals have the best offense in the league, scoring almost four goals a game, but their team defense is middle-of-the-pack. The opposite could be said for the Devils, who have the No.1 team defense, but are middle of the pack in team offense. The Sabres have a bit more balance, with the third best defense and the ninth best offense. But it’s the Sharks and Blackhawks who have the most dominating numbers. The Sharks are number two in team offense, the Blackhawks are three one-hundredths of a point behind them, in third place. The Blackhawks have the league’s second best defense, the Sharks, with a bit more of a gap than the offensive difference, are in fourth place. They have eerily similar powerplay and penalty kill numbers and they both are in the top-six in shots per game. These are the two best teams in the league, and it is impossible to say which is the favorite to win the Stanley Cup at this point in the season. The only discernible difference between the teams are shots allowed per game and goaltender performance. In the end, the Sharks and Blackhawks’ team defenses have nearly equal results, making a 24 shot against per game Cristobal Huet/Antti Niemi equal to a 30 shots against per game Evgeni Nabokov. Which is better? I couldn’t tell you, but that confusion is enough to convince me that the Blackhawks do not have a goaltending problem. After all, Huet and Nabokov have the same amount of playoff success – none.
Could the Blackhawks make an upgrade at goaltender? Yes, but it will cost them. That cost will be an offensive and defensive talent: a player that might not be replaceable. What’s to say that getting a Marty Turco from Dallas for Kris Versteeg and Cristobal Huet wouldn’t significantly hurt the Blackhawks’ team offense or team defense? Are Turco, Jaroslav Halak or Kari Lehtonen, the only three goaltenders available, that much better than Huet or Niemi? How much better would they look if the Blackhawks were scoring a goal less every two games and giving up three or four more shots a game? Nabokov, Huet, Halak, Turco, Niemi: this season it’s a wash at best, and so the status-quo is what Hawks fans will have to deal with going forward. Right now, the Blackhawks have the same concern as the Sharks, their worthy adversary, Are we good enough to get it done in the playoffs? The beauty of the question is that no one can answer it until the playoffs roll around. But there are five teams who look to be in the best position, two who can be considered favorites, and one of those favorites is the Blackhawks. Is that position worth jeopardizing?