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Quenneville biding his time on goalie decision

Friday, 03.12.2010 / 11:30 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Quenneville biding his time on goalie decision
Despite a terrific season, the Chicago Blackhawks still are hearing complaints about their goaltending and whether it is good enough to win the Cup.
In Joel Quenneville's perfect world, he won't have to go with a hunch come mid-April because either Cristobal Huet or Antti Niemi, perhaps even both, will clear the foggy picture that has seemingly every fan in the Windy City questioning the Chicago Blackhawks' goaltending.

"We have a lot of hockey left and I'm looking at our schedule as we speak, so to say exactly when (I'll decide on a playoff goalie) … I don't want to be pinpointed," Quenneville told NHL.com. "Maybe all of a sudden one guy jumps out and it's clear, it's obvious and the decision is made for you."

By now, 66 games into an 82-game regular season, Quenneville had hoped to have his answer. But neither Huet nor Niemi has shown enough consistency for the coach to make that call, and now there are some serious doubts that they ever will.

They've been good enough to help the Blackhawks win 66 percent of their games (44-17-5) and carry the third-best goals-against average in the League at 2.39, but what worries fans is the reputation Huet and Niemi have gained for giving up soft goals.

The Hawks' goalies have just a .901 save percentage, which puts them in the bottom-third of the League in that category. Niemi carries a respectable .910 save percentage into Saturday's game in Philadelphia. Huet's is worse at .898, and he's played in 46 games compared to Niemi's 25.

 
"Obviously we're a team that has had a lot of success this year and if you look at everything we've done there is not a lot in our game that is in doubt," Huet told NHL.com. "One thing you can question is the goaltenders because we have a save percentage that is not among the best, even though if you look at other stats like wins and goals-against, we're right there. But people question us because the save percentage is not on top."

Quenneville, for one, isn't buying it. He said the Blackhawks are a special case because of how few shots they allow (a League-low 24.3 per game). As a result, he doesn't view save percentage as a defining stat; he goes to goals-against instead.

The Hawks score 3.21 goals per game and give up 2.39. That's winning hockey.

"I think (save percentage) is not a fair stat when your teams give up so few shots. It's misleading," Quenneville said. "All year long with our goals-against average we've been at the top in the League, and to me, for us, that's the best measuring stat for a goalie. The other stat won't be flattering when you don't give up too many shots."

Niemi agreed, and his theory, whether you agree or not, actually is quite interesting. 

He doesn't think any goalie would have an inflated save percentage playing behind the Blackhawks' skaters because of their puck-possession game. It caters to offense, but also gives the forwards freedom to be creative while the defensemen pinch.

The Hawks don't give up many shots, but a decent number of the ones they do allow are of the Grade-A variety that results from turnovers near the opposite blue line. They're somewhat unavoidable when you're always pushing for offense, and Chicago is third in scoring.

"I think the easiest way to get a good save percentage is to be on a team that gives up a lot of scoring chances, but not chances from the middle -- mostly longer shots that are from out wide," Niemi told NHL.com. "Sometimes it's harder when we are on the puck all the time because then the opponent can get a couple of good chances and score some goals. You don't get the save percentage that way. But I don't mind if our offensive players have those turnovers on the blue line."

Quenneville thinks the Blackhawks are very much in the mold of the Red Wings of the past decade or so. It's part of the reason why he won't be overly concerned if neither Huet nor Niemi step up and steal the job over the last 16 games of the regular season.

Just like Mike Babcock did two years ago during Detroit's Stanley Cup run, when he changed from Dominik Hasek to Chris Osgood early in the playoffs, Quenneville will be ready to toss a changeup if his first choice turns into a failure.

Unlike most of the fans, he's showing confidence in both netminders.

"(Babcock) did the same thing in the Olympics when he started (Roberto) Luongo, went to Marty (Brodeur) and it looked like it would be Marty, but then he went back to Luongo," Quenneville said. "You have some ideas and you have options, but certainly you'd like to have one guy be the guy."

"Obviously we're a team that has had a lot of success this year and if you look at everything we've done there is not a lot in our game that is in doubt. One thing you can question is the goaltenders because we have a save percentage that is not among the best, even though if you look at other stats like wins and goals-against, we're right there. But people question us because the save percentage is not on top."
-- Cristobal Huet

They both think they can be and both want to be. Yet, in a twist of irony, they are rooting for the other guy, too.

"We work every day together before the team is on the ice," Niemi said. "We do everything together."

Added Huet: "We're a team. At the end of the day, the team results are what matter."

The results have been good enough to give the Blackhawks a chance at the top seed in the Western Conference. They are the favorite among many fans and journalists to play in the Stanley Cup Final.

No one is crazy to think the Hawks are the most complete team in the NHL, but those same people aren't nuts to at least show some concern about the goaltending even if Niemi thinks it's misguided criticism.

"People are thinking about it way too much," he said. "Once somebody has a bad game everybody goes crazy, like there is big a problem. When someone plays a great game, you hear nothing about it. The team has been winning all the time so I don't see any problem."

Nobody's world is perfect.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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— Saku Koivu on Thursday, recalling what he was told by the late Jean Beliveau when he was named Canadiens captain in 1999
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