If nothing else, Antti Niemi is proving he can get the job done in shootouts. He won his third consecutive and fourth game overall as the Hawks hit the Olympic break with a 5-4 victory over the Blue Jackets.
Niemi got the start in Columbus less than 24 hours after beating Atlanta at the United Center. It marked the first time in his young career that he’s started four straight games.
“He’s playing well,” coach Joel Quenneville told the Hawks’ team Web site after the game. “He’s coming off three straight wins. It’s an easy decision. We’re off for a long time. Playing back-to-back. Give him a chance to keep going.”
Knowing the Olympic break was imminent and the fact that Sunday’s game started 20.5 hours after Saturday’s start time, it would have been easy for Quenneville to split the games for his goaltenders. But even as late as Friday, the Hawks coach wouldn’t commit to that rotation claiming he was sticking with the “hot” goalie. It means, when the break is over, goaltender Cristobal Huet will not have played in an NHL game for nearly a month. His next chance would come when play resumes for the Hawks on March 2 on Long Island. Clearly, the Hawks are taking a long, hard look at Niemi for the spring in case they decide Huet is not the man for the playoffs.
Though his goals against average has risen over the four-game win streak, Niemi has stopped 11 of 12 skaters in the shootout over three games. He’s 5-1 in shootouts this season -- that winning percentage is the best among goalies with at least six decisions. His save percentage is .833, also tops. Niemi has given up five goals on 30 shots in shootouts this season.
His shootout success may not translate to anything tangible for playoff hockey -- there are no shootouts in the postseason -- but it certainly gives an idea how Niemi can handle the pressure and spotlight.
The Hawks will have three days after the Olympics to decide if they want to pull the trigger for a new goaltender. If not, they at least know they have more than one option with the 17-4-1 Niemi, who is quickly shedding his “back-up” label.
Kris Versteeg played a season low 4:54. Joel Quenneville didn’t mince words to the Blackhawks Web site about his winger.
“I didn’t like the way he was playing,” Quenneville said.
As expected, Marian Hossa missed Sunday’s game after taking a blow near the head on Saturday night. Quenneville indicated Hossa would travel to Vancouver for the Olympics today and be looked after by Team Slovakia’s doctors.
The Hawks hit the break 41-15-5. Their 87 points is just two behind conference leading San Jose.