The Chicago Blackhawks, minus their six Olympians still playing in Vancouver, got back to work on Thursday in preparation for the final 21 games of the regular season. They will have five practices, in Chicago, before flying to New York to take on the Islanders on Tuesday.
Joel Quenneville raised eyebrows before the break when he started Antti Niemi in goal for the final four games -- including a back-to-back weekend set -- just before the Olympics. On Thursday he clarified his reasoning for playing Niemi over Cristobal Huet.
“I think that we are close to the [end] of the season and somebody is going to get the net, and he got the opportunity to keep it,” Quenneville said after practice. “That was the chance, and he took it, and he’s got it. Based on him winning it's tough to change the goalie in that situation. We’ll announce our goalie going into the Islander game and go from there. We won some games, and I don’t like, usually, bucking that trend.”
Huet started the season as the No. 1 goalie. That has slowly slipped away from him. He said he was a little surprised he didn’t get in a game that final weekend before the break, but is hopeful he can have a strong finish.
“They didn’t say much to me,” Huet said about not playing. “It’s never fun sitting on the bench. It’s not something I want to do. Going into the last 21 games I’m really focused and ready to take the challenge. I’m going to work hard to get some playing time again.”
Quenneville also said he wouldn’t forecast how the final 21 games will go in terms of his goaltending.
Safe to say barring a trade, Niemi is more than in the mix to be the playoff netminder.
Quenneville thought there were some players “huffing” and “puffing” at the end of their first practice back, but said all in all they “looked good.” Some players admitted there was some rust.
“There was definitely some rust out there,” Troy Brouwer said. “Guys legs felt a little heavy. Hands were a little bit off, the timing was a little bit off. It's easy to lose it but it's real easy to get it back. We’ve got some practices here before we get back at it.”
“Yeah, the timing was off,” Patrick Sharp said. “The passing was difficult, shooting the puck was hard but the legs felt strong, and I felt healthy and in good shape. That’s the main thing. The timing will come as we practice along here.”
Madden injury: John Maddendid not practice on Thursday with the team because of a knee injury he suffered before the break. Quenneville said Madden has “progressed well” and will more than likely be on the ice Friday and “could practice with the team.” Ben Eager returned to practice after missing time with a lower body injury.
Burish update: Adam Burish is closer to returning from his knee surgery. He said he could return on March 7.
New practice facility: The Hawks skated for the first time at the New Johnny’s Ice House on Madison. Unlike the old Johnny’s rink, this one is NHL regulation size.
“That was a bummer practicing on regulation ice,” Sharp joked. “We liked skating on that smaller rink, but they did a great job building it.”