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Will Blackhawks’ goaltending hold them back?

Image (2) Huet-thumb-200x300-6737.jpg for post 109

Chicago Blackhawks vs Detroit Red Wings 12:30 p.m. EST - Sunday, March 7, 2010 Live on NBC

The Blackhawks, behind the renewed ownership and team approach of Rocky Wirtz, have rebuilt their team over the past few seasons and are on the cusp of contending for the Stanley Cup. They have the best defensive corps in the NHL, a potent offense and a team predicated on young talent that are just now entering the prime of their careers. Yet all season long it’s been a comedy of errors in net for the Hawks, as stellar defense has covered up the shortcomings of the Chicago goaltending.

This issue is obvious to everyone but the Blackhawks themselves. They made the choice to stay quiet at the deadline, deciding that the tandem of Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet are perfectly fine for the team to rely on for the playoffs.

This does not pass the eyeball test, however. Anyone who has watched the Hawks this season knows that the goaltending is the biggest (and perhaps only) issue with this team. The netminding is a joke and the fact that the team decided not to address the issue at the trade deadline will be what keeps this team from realizing their postseason dreams.

The goals-against doesn’t tell the story.

When arguing that the Hawks goaltending situation is far from the dire situation most think it is, experts call upon the NHL-best 2.36 goals-against average. However, that number is not a result of great goaltending -- in fact, that stat exists in spite of the goaltending. Cristobal Huet, the Blackhawks starter this season, has a 2.32 goals-against yet an atrociously low save percentage of .900 (37th in NHL). His backup, Antti Niemi, fares just a bit better with a .910 save percentage (27th in NHL), but this is far from the level of goaltending you’d want or expect from a Stanley Cup contending team. The save percentage is a much better example of the effectiveness of a team’s goaltenders; when the team in front of you is sacrificing their bodies to block shots and make great defensive plays, it’s embarrassing when the goaltenders can barely stop 90% of the shots that do make it through.

The Hawks may be winning now, but offense won’t come as easy in the playoffs.

So the argument is that the Hawks defense, superb puck possession and offense will cover up for the goaltending in the playoffs, just as it has all season long. Yet once a team gets deep in the playoffs, scoring comes at a premium. Teams that have made it to the conference finals and beyond need, not only stellar defense, but great goaltending as well. It’s the old adage: defense wins championships. Great offense is an incredible tool to have, but what happens when you’re playing the top defensive teams when it matters most. Scoring 4-5 goals a game can no longer be counted upon, especially if you’re facing the San Jose Sharks or the Colorado Avalanche. Speaking of whom, both those teams have goaltenders that are not only not allowing goals -- but are stopping the majority of the shots that come their way. It’s not a foreign concept. Well, maybe to the Hawks it is.

What about Detroit last season?

The 2008-09 Red Wings are a prime example of a team getting to the finals despite their goaltending. Starter Chris Osgood and backup Ty Conklin combined for a sub-.900 save percentage on the season -- in fact Chris Osgood had the worst save percentage (.887) of any regular starter in the NHL. Yet they made it to the finals, and were within one goal in Game 7 of winning a second straight Stanley Cup. When the playoffs started, however, Osgood was once again able to turn it on and manage a .926 save percentage; an incredible turn around from the regular season. This propelled the Wings to the finals as great goaltending combined with stellar defense is supposed to do in the postseason.

Does Huet have the ability to turn it on in the postseason?

Chris Osgood has won multiple Stanley Cups and has been playing in the NHL since 1995. He had the experience necessary to know how to buckle down once the playoffs started. Does Cristobal Huet have that same ability? In 2006 with the Canadiens he won just two games in a six-game series, yet had an entirely respectable 2.33 goals-against and .929 save percentage.

The Hawks allow a NHL-low 24.2 shots per game -- that doesn’t mean much when the goaltending is allowing 2-3 goals per game on limited shots. Huet has allowed five goals on 29 shots in the past two games combined; the Hawks have won them both.

Chicago is dead set on the notion that they can win this season and in the playoffs based on scoring and stellar defense alone.The numbers say otherwise.
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