After the Blackhawks’ 4-1 loss to the Senators on Tuesday, the collective fandom of the Chicago Blackhawks needs to do one thing – take a deep breath. Blackhawks fans don’t need to go to pundits, prognosticators or psychics to look for answers to why the Blackhawks lost, fair and square, to an Eastern Conference team. The reason the Blackhawks lost on Tuesday is simple, they didn’t play well and they ran into one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League. It’s not rocket science and it’s not the end of the world, but apparently last Tuesday’s loss was a litmus test for the rest of the season and a perfect allusion of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup playoff outcome.
That, in a word, is bull.
More than halfway through the Blackhawks’ campaign, there has been a schism amongst Chicago hockey fans. The two groups of fans are at each others throats about one player – Cristobal Huet. Right now it is very easy to join up with the anti-Huet group and membership seems to grow after every game he starts. Huet’s last 10 games validates the membership growth; 6-3-1, a shutout and 181 saves on 208 attempts for a very Steve Mason-esque .870 save percentage.
Recent losses like those to Ottawa, Dallas and San Jose – games in which the Blackhawks allowed less than 20 shots to reach Huet – have fueled the anti-Huet fire. Those games were bad, but anti-Huets who refer to these games as indictments, fail to mention that Huet followed up two of those games with 25-plus save, one goal allowed, performances to very good teams in New Jersey and Nashville.
The fact is, Cristobal Huet is a good enough goaltender to win a Stanley Cup. He’s as talented as any goalie in the league and has played outstandingly, at times, this season. The problem with Huet is not talent or ability, it’s consistency. If a personal seven-game winning streak in November doesn’t alleviate the concern of Huet’s consistency, I cannot help you. He’s done it before, he’s not doing it now. Hasek, Roy, Brodeur and Esposito all lost games and all went through slumps. Huet is nowhere near the class of those legend and he shouldn’t be expected to be immune from such lulls.
If the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup chances hinged solely on Cristobal Huet, there would certainly be significant, justified, concern. Luckily, the notion that goaltenders win Stanley Cups is proven hyperbole. If it wasn’t, we could take the Stanley Cup to Buffalo right now.
Take last year as an example; Marc Andre Fluery, the Cup winning goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins, had a very pedestrian year: .912 save percentage and a 2.67 goals against average. On the Pens Cup run, he was more of the same: .908 save percentage and a 2.61 goals against average. Yet, he raised the Cup, why? Because teams win the Stanley Cup, not the goaltender. Team defense, team scoring, goaltending – they are all part of a complex and inexact formula for predicting who will end the playoffs as the last team standing.
Game points are not a great indicator of who should win the Cup, but goals scored and goals allowed are perfect indicators of who the best team is. Right now, amongst the questions and turmoil between the pipes, the Blackhawks are still second in the league in goals against average (2.16), and are tied for third in goals for average (3.14). No other team can boast membership in the top-three of both categories and the Sharks are the only other team in both top-fives.
As a team, the Blackhawks are as good as they come. Why would Cristobal Huet derail the team’s success come playoff time? He’s every bit a part of his team’s regular season success as Nabokov in San Jose, a player who has had his fair share of losses this year in strong team defensive performances. Perhaps Frenchie is just too easy of a scapegoat for losses.
The truth is this, Blackhawks fans will have to bear with Huet, because there are zero outside alternatives. Those who have proposed a goaltending upgrade through trade fail to provide workable scenarios, and for good reason. That’s because the Blackhawks front office cannot acquire an upgrade for Huet without jeopardizing the winning fabric of the Hawks. Theoretically, a Marty Turco to the Blackhawks is a deal that could work, but the Stars appear ready to let Turco walk in the offseason when he is an unrestricted free agent. With Jonas Hiller possibly available in the offseason, it seems highly unlikely that the Stars would be interested in Huet for two more seasons. Any trade for a goalie worth having that would include Huet going the other way would force the Blackhawks to put two, three or four of their skaters on the table. There isn’t an available goaltender worthy of such a price
The option that the anti-Huets are harping for is in-house and aptly named: Antti Niemi. Has Niemi proven himself as a No.1 goalie? No more than Huet has disproven his No.1 status. At this point, both goaltenders are equal and Huet will always get the advantage in a tie, being both more experienced and higher paid.
Huet’s experience is one well-played playoff series for the Montreal Canadiens in 2005-2006. In a losing effort, Huet held a 2.33 goals against average and a .933 save percentage. Huet’s only other playoff series as a starting goaltender was, as a rental player, in Washington. Behind the poor Capitals defense, Huet lost in the first round and posted a 2.90 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. In last year’s Western Conference Finals, Huet nearly continued the Blackhawks’ season singlehandedly, saving 44 of 46 shots, many in absolutely spectacular fashion, in game five.
I like Antti Niemi, don’t get me wrong. I think he’ll be the Blackhawks starting goaltender for years to come, but this year I just don’t think that the Blackhawks can risk tossing a rookie goaltender into the fire of the Stanley Cup playoffs because his counterpoint underperformed. Then again, if Niemi keeps having games like his win in Detroit on Sunday and Huet continues to have games like his loss to Ottawa, the Blackhawks will have no choice but to roll with Niemi. Either way, the Blackhawks will start the playoffs with a goaltender who has never started and won a Stanley Cup playoff series between the pipes.
But we’ve been down this let’s-start-Niemi-over-Huet road twice already this season. Huet has bounced back from adversity and I believe he will do it again. The longer it takes for him to bounce back, the more opportunities Antti Niemi will have to steal the starting job. Down the homestretch, both goalies will be rested and both will have ample time to prove that they are the man for the job. If the playoffs started today, a coin would have to be called in to make the decision. Of course the playoffs do not start today, but hopefully by the time they do roll around, in April, the goalie situation becomes much more clear cut. Until then the the anti (Antti)-Huets and the Si-Huets will campaign for the man they want between the pipes come crunch-time. As of right now, I will go without endorsing a candidate, but the election is still long away.