<
>

Niemi outduels Crawford ... barely

You have to wonder if he ever wonders.

When former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi beat out current netminder Corey Crawford for the backup position a season ago, who knew what would unfold for Niemi?

What if it had been Crawford who won the job? They were neck-and-neck in training camp when the Hawks chose to send Crawford down to the minors after the team returned from its opening two games in Europe. No one would have been surprised if Crawford had stayed or even was to come up later in the season. It never materialized that way.

Crawford played in exactly one game -- when Cristobal Huet came down with the flu. Niemi won the Stanley Cup.

Fast-forward a season later, and the two former teammates, and competitors, battled toe to toe in a thrilling 2-1 San Jose Sharks win on Saturday night.

They matched each other save for save, literally, until Crawford blinked, unable to move across the crease in time to stop Ryane Clowe’s second of the night, late in the extra period.

Both goalies faced 11 shots in the first, eight each in the third, and two more apiece in overtime. In the second period, they were separated by just one attempt. That’s how close this game was. Crawford and Niemi each made 28 saves on the night.

There was Niemi stopping Jonathan Toews and Jack Skille on good scoring chances. Crawford responded by shutting the door on Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Benn Ferriero . It went back and forth like that until Clowe’s goal, allowing fans to exhale.

The loss didn’t change the mind of anyone who watched Crawford.

“I thought he played great,” Joel Quenneville said after the game. “I think you could argue that that might have been his best game. He’s the reason we got a point. He made two or three saves that looked like they were empty netters. His anticipation was there. He was sharp and quick and big.”

So Crawford’s winning streak is over, but a point streak continues, and after hearing Quenneville speak of his performance, it might just earn him yet another start on Monday in Denver.

As for Niemi, he’s beaten his former team twice, in arguably two of his best games this season. The teams will face two more times this regular season and the possibility of the young goaltenders battling out then, and in a postseason matchup, is tantalizing.

For now, Niemi has won some bragging rights but something tells me Crawford is just getting warmed up.

No goal

The Hawks may have been victim of a quick whistle on an apparent Viktor Stalberg goal in the second period. Jack Skille’s shot on Niemi went in and out of his glove, dropping just behind the goaltender. Stalberg quickly shoved it into the net but the referees claimed the whistle blew. Joel Quenneville took the high road regarding the stoppage of play.

“It was one of those plays where sometimes it goes against you,” Quenneville said. “But we can’t really complain because sometimes you get quick whistles.”