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Blackhawks-Red Wings notes: Will Antii Niemi be back?

DETROIT -- Not many lumps of coal to pass around the Hawks organization these days. Not when you’re 24-9-3 at the Christmas break and have shut out your long time nemesis twice in four days—with two different goaltenders no less:

-- Detroit coach Mike Babcock didn’t mince words regarding the Hawks and Wings right now.

“Guys tried and I think at this time, right now, the Blackhawks are better than us,” he told the Detroit Free Press.

That might be true, but he knows what everyone knows about the Wings, including Patrick Sharp.

“Everyone in the league is talking about the Wings situation,” Sharp said after the win on Wednesday. “We can’t believe what’s happened to them with injuries. They can still be dangerous when they all return.”

-- The Hawks are the new Oilers. OK, maybe I can’t go that far but at least one aspect of their play is reminiscent of those Edmonton teams of the 1980s. The Hawks have scored eight goals during four-on-four play while only giving up one. Getting a player off the ice from both sides has worked in the Hawks’ favor. Dustin Byfuglien got into it with Kirk Maltby on Wednesday and both went off for roughing. Soon after, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa ran a nice give and go and Sharp cleaned up for the goal.

“Active defensemen make the difference in situations like that,” Sharp said after the game.

You might see more and more coincidental roughing calls from here on out, but there may be very little coincidence about them.

-- On the way to the game I was listening to the Red Wings flagship station and Ken Kal, one of their longtime announcers, brought up a good point. If the Wings have to “sneak” into the playoffs but are at full health -- or close to it -- who would want to play them? Being the underdog might serve them well for a change. If anyone in that conference knows about winning in May, it’s Detroit.

-- This from reading the Detroit Free Press on the way home to Chicago from the game: The Wings have been called for six “too many men on the ice” penalties this season and the opposition has scored on four of them. That stings. The Hawks took advantage of one Wednesday night as Patrick Kane tallied to open up the second period after the Wings were called for TMM late in the first. There can’t be a more frustrating and useless penalty for a coach then that one.

-- In a season like this, I loathe all the talk about what the Hawks need to do this offseason to clear cap space, etc… You’re supposed to enjoy the journey, right? Having said that, Antti Niemi’s year is becoming real interesting, to say the least. It bears mentioning again how hard it is to come “off the bench” and perform the way he has. And think about where he’s done it: Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Detroit. Heck, I almost wet my pants walking into Joe Louis knowing what they’ve done to the Hawks over the years. Not Niemi. He just doesn’t get rattled too often, and he is much more fundamentally sound than I ever knew. His situation at the end of the year will be one to watch. He’s a restricted free-agent. Wouldn’t you think if he keeps up anywhere near this pace that someone is going to make him an offer to be a No. 1 goaltender? Even if you give a lot of credit to the skaters in front of him (which I do) four shutouts in nine starts says it all. Would/Could the Hawks trade Cristobal Huet, save cap space, and sign Niemi to a deal? He wouldn’t cost you anywhere near the 5.6 million that Huet is making, but would still get a big raise. Or, the Hawks may have to let him go and get the huge compensation package in return. Some may doubt he’d get a good offer, but it’s not like good goaltenders grow on trees. I say someone will do it and then the Hawks will have to make some tough decisions. Or maybe those decisions will be made for them if Huet can’t be moved. Anyway, this is all premature but (Christmas) food for thought.

-- John Madden is a former teammate of Martin Brodeur, so he knows a little something about good goaltending.

“He was on his game again tonight. He got that fourth [shutout] tonight and it could have been five if Madden would have won a faceoff in Pittsburgh. But lets not talk about him right now,” Madden joked.

He’s right though. Niemi was a few seconds away from shutting out the Penguins a few weeks ago when Madden lost a faceoff and the “extra” attacker was able to score. The Hawks did win in overtime.

-- The Hawks continue to break TV ratings records, seemingly on an every night basis. Wednesday was no different. Comcast SportsNet delivered its highest Blackhawks regular season rating with a 3.27. That number translates to about 114,500 viewers for the game. The Hawks will air the first edition of “Blackhawks TV” on Friday night at 7 and 10:30 pm on Comcast. It’s an all-access look inside the Hawks.