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Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Hawks poised for Cup run

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks came into the season with a powerful, exciting lineup and uncertain, but not terrible, goaltending. All things being constant, they will finish the season, whether it be hoisting a Cup or hanging their bearded, hockey-haired heads, with a powerful, exciting lineup and two uncertain, and hopefully not terrible, goaltenders.

There were no saviors at the busy trade deadline for Chicago, just shrugged shoulders and vague explanations of deals never materialized. A post-trade deadline news conference reminds me of a friend from college who always went home alone at the end of a night out. There's always a story about what "almost" happened.

Cristobal Huet
Despite rumors that he would be trade bait at the deadline, Cristobal Huet remains a Hawk.

But not much happened this sunny March afternoon. After picking up some defensemen for depth recently, the Hawks couldn't close the deal on a goaltender on the final day of shopping. Just as Scotty Bowman warned us this morning, Tomas Vokoun didn't waltz through the door to escort this team to the Cup.

The Hawks will ride with Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet, two capable netminders, but let's be honest: Hawks fans have as much confidence in them in the playoffs as commuters do in the CTA. You know a train will probably come, and nine times out of 10 your ride will be fine, but you're not surprised when things break down. You swear and stamp your feet, but you knew it was possible all along.

Stan Bowman is here to tell you to step off the ledge, Hawks fans and hockey snobs. The team with the second-most points in the Western Conference and 41 wins and 202 goals will be OK come April.

"We're comfortable," Bowman said. "We've said that a couple times. We've reached this point for a reason. We've got great players. To disrupt that just to make a trade is not our goal."

The prevailing notion was that Huet, with his big contract and unassuming play, was the guy getting peddled for cap relief while the team tried to find a more reliable replacement. But with a restrictive salary cap and a league where 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs, well, everything doesn't work out when the big-money Blackhawks snap their fingers.

Not that the Hawks weren't trying. Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville have to talk out of both sides of their mouth in situations like this; that's just how it is. While Bowman can say they weren't about to break up this team just to make a deal, he can also say, "It takes two to tango. And we didn't quite get anything done." And he's right in both regards.

You can bet your Jonathan Toews jersey Bowman was trying to get another goalie. He was kicking tires, sending text messages and unleashing his father, Scotty, who went on the radio in Canada to say his son and the front office were having a good laugh about the Vokoun rumors. You know, because everything is grand in Chicago. Scotty wasn't just spouting off. That was done with a purpose, whether he was trying to lighten the load on the front office, or let other teams know the team was open for business.

Figuring out Scotty's role in the team isn't as mysterious as people think. When I met with Stan earlier this season in a rare chance to talk to the reticent boss, he said his father has a big influence on him and the club. When Scotty Bowman suggests a move or a player, he said, how could you not listen? Scotty doesn't know much about the salary cap, though, which is where his son's expertise comes in handy. I imagine they had some conversations these past couple of days that would make a puckhead's mullet straighten with excitement.

Patrick Kane got to watch some games with the old man when Kane lived with Stan Bowman for a season, and he said it was an awesome sight. Scotty would be sitting there pounding away on his laptop, never missing a forecheck, while expounding on the game unfolding.

And while his son expresses no public worry about Huet and Niemi's struggles, because it's a long season and there are six weeks to go, Scotty isn't wired that way. In his classic hockey book, "The Game," former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden wrote about his former coach, "With schizophrenic desperation/perspective, he treats each game as an indicator, as a signpost, en route to May; yet he makes no compromise for any game." With that in mind, you think Scotty wasn't slapping the couch when Huet was giving up soft goals to the Islanders?

Antti Niemi
After a hot start to the season, 26-year-old Antti Niemi has cooled off a bit.

Of course he was. And of course the Blackhawks were trying to get another goalie or a brain-rattling power forward.

This team is built for a Stanley Cup run. And while this isn't a last-ditch campaign -- this team is young and talented and its core is primed for the future -- it's certainly a now-or-never time for a franchise that hasn't won a Stanley Cup since JFK's time.

And this aggressive, money-printing franchise will do pretty much anything to win. They'd trade the Ice Girls to a Siberian work camp for a win in March.

So basically, this situation amounted to an unrealized opportunity to make a great team even greater. But then again, who is certain that one of the two goalies won't step up when the moment calls for it? Both have decent numbers even though they've faced fewer shots than most thanks to a puck-controlling offense and a sharp defense.

Huet started Wednesday after giving up two goals in 11 shots in relief of Niemi in Tuesday's 5-3 loss to the Islanders. Neither goalie looked good, possibly a side effect of the Olympic break, Quenneville said.

Niemi started four straight games going into the break, while Huet was likely on the block. At this point, Huet could just as likely keep his job.

"He has a great chance to keep playing," Quenneville said.

Huet gave up two goals in the second period Wednesday as the Hawks fell behind 2-1, but he didn't face much opposition down the stretch as Chicago hammered Edmonton 5-2 behind a ridiculous 47-14 shot advantage. Things won't be this easy come April and May, as the Hawks will face better goaltenders and tougher defensemen, and that's the concern.

While Bowman praised his goaltending situation like a good executive, Quenneville's verbiage was a little less complimentary. Not pointedly short, but his hand wasn't sore for back-patting.

"All year our goaltending has been fine," he said, the word "fine" hanging in the air. "It's been part of our success and it's been relatively consistent."

Both goaltenders will get their shots down the stretch, Quenneville said, with 20 games (counting Wednesday) crammed in through April 11. But he said the Hawks are obviously planning on riding one guy in the playoffs, where hot goaltenders seem to win the Cup by themselves almost every year.

Who's it going to be? Niemi has slightly better numbers, and to many, beats Huet in the all-important eye test. But he's young, 26, and untested. Huet is more experienced at 34, but is just 45-40-4 with a 2.45 GAA after the traditional All-Star break over his career. So neither has much of a track record of success down the stretch.

While I want to say trust the team that has thrilled the league all season, it's OK to worry about the goaltending, even with a team that is blessed with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Those Olympians were honored before the game in front of a cheering throng that had been deprived of hockey for two weeks. And along with a passel of non-Olympian, All Star-caliber talent, this is a team that invites, practically demands optimism. But it's OK to worry. Just a little.

"You don't reach this point by luck," Bowman said. "You may get lucky for a few weeks. You can sustain it for serious months and get to where we are in the standings. There is a reason we are where we are."