The Blackhawks’ postseason checklist: Skilled forwards? Check. Grinding forwards? Check. Puck-moving defensemen? Check. Solid goaltending? Well…
The Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the better teams in the NHL all season long even without a true number one goaltender to lean on.
The Blackhawks drew the Nashville Predators in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a team that goaltender Antti Niemi has faced just once this season. Niemi stopped 16 of 20 shots as the Blackhawks rallied in the third period to win back in December.
Just looking at Niemi’s numbers alone, he looks like he would be the type of goalie that could carry a team deep into the playoffs with little support. He has a respectable .912 save percentage and a 2.25 goals against average, good enough for fourth in the league. His seven shutouts are pretty impressive for a guy who started only 35 games.
Everything would seem to play to Niemi’s favor come playoff time. The Blackhawks’ goaltender is 8-3-3 with three shutouts against Western Conference playoff teams. Even with Niemi’s resume looking good for the playoffs, people are quick to point the finger at goaltending as the weak link. A lack of playoff experience is always a concern for a team resting their hopes on a young, unproven goalie but Niemi isn’t the prototypical rookie goaltender.
Niemi is 26 years old, which makes him a little too old to compete for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year but if he were a year younger, he would be right in the mix. The contrast in goaltending from last year and this year can be widely debated, but the playoff experience gained from last year cannot.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews know what the postseason is all about. Both young players head into the playoffs with a playoff experience that will prove to be extremely valuable.
Nikolai Khabibulin was a rock last year and kept the Blackhawks in games they probably shouldn’t have been in during last season’s playoff run. This year though, the Blackhawks are built a little differently than they were last season.
A hot goaltender can change a team’s playoff outlook but so can a hot offense. The puck possession style that the Blackhawks play keeps opponents from pressuring Niemi. Nashville doesn’t have the offensive firepower to change the series so Niemi doesn’t have as much pressure on his shoulders as many would think.
Now that the young core for the Blackhawks has that playoff experience, Niemi’s job isn’t to win games like Khabibulin was asked to do, but his job is to not lose games.