At this point, it’s anybody’s net.
More than the decision, the things Quenneville said after practice on Tuesday further show he hasn’t made up his mind for the playoffs.
"It's important that somebody establishes himself and takes charge in the net," Quenneville said.
With 17 games remaining, time is starting to run out. Quenneville reminded everyone that last year he didn’t settle on one guy until very late as well. In fact, last March, in part because Nikolai Khabibulin was returning from an injury, he and Cristobal Huet split time. Once April rolled around, it was Khabby’s job. He played in six of the final seven regular season games and was the No. 1 goaltender in the playoffs, until another injury sidelined him against Detroit in the conference finals. If last season is any indication, look for the competition to be settled by April Fool’s Day, so the winner can get mentally ready during the final six regular-season games.
This year and last haven’t been the only times Quenneville has faced goalie decisions down the stretch. In his last season in Colorado, both Peter Budaij and Jose Theodore saw significant time in goal. Quenneville stayed with the veteran Theodore until a four-game sweep in round two of the playoffs versus Detroit. In that series, Theodore was pulled in three of four games. Sound familiar? Quenneville has changed goalies, mid-game in two of the first four games since the Olympic break ended.
There was another thing Quenneville said on Tuesday that might shed some light on how he makes his decision. He intimated that the confidence the players have in front of the goaltender would play a part. Ask anyone associated with hockey and they will tell you it’s a big part of the equation. Who do the skaters, especially the defense, feel more comfortable with? When they take a chance, who will more likely bail them out? The answer, right now, has to be Niemi.
The major knock against the 26-year-old rookie netminder is exactly that. He’s a rookie. But this is a strange season in the Western Conference. If you’re worried about Niemi’s youth, you can’t be alone.
If the postseason began today, no fewer than four Western Conference contenders would start goalkeepers with zero playoff starts on their resume. Were Antti Niemi to get the nod for the Hawks, that would make five. That’s astounding.
The ones with some experience haven’t exactly etched their name on the Stanley Cup. Roberto Luongo of Vancouver, for all his accolades, is just 11-11 in the postseason with two second-round exits -- including one at the hands of the Hawks last season. Evgeni Nabakov of San Jose is 32-31 with one conference finals appearance way back in 2004. The only netminder whose numbers jump off the page, at least a little, is Ilya Bryzgalov of Phoenix. When he was with Anaheim, he had a 9-5 playoff record and a 1.68 goals-against average with a first and second round exit. He hasn’t seen playoff action since 2007.
In other words, the difference between goalies in this year’s Western Conference playoffs, in terms of experience, is nearly negligible. All the more reason that if the Hawks deem Niemi the better goaltender, his rookie status should not stop them from giving him the job. Detroit has a Stanley Cup winner on its bench in Chris Osgood. Unless Jimmy Howard melts down in the final month, the Wings will go with an untested 26-year-old.
Why can’t the Hawks?
They can, though there is one major difference between them and the Wings. Osgood has been in this situation before. Two seasons ago, Dominik Hasek faltered early in the playoffs and Osgood took over only to lead them to the Cup. He’s in the same spot now, in case the younger Howard has similar troubles. The Hawks would have to turn to Huet, whose mental state at that point might, understandably, be a question mark.
Finally, speaking of goaltender’s mental states, the Hawks will have to monitor Niemi through all this, especially if he falters. It wasn’t that long ago that the Montreal Canadians handed Carey Price the keys to the organization in net -- after they traded Huet away mid-season. Since that trade Price is 5-10 in two postseason appearances with a 3.11 goals against average and .895 save percentage. Subsequently, he lost his starting job to Jaroslav Halak. Many in the NHL feel he was thrown into the pressure cooker too early and never recovered.
The good news for Niemi might be he’s six years older than Price was at the time. Otherwise, he’s in a similar position, with one more added level of pressure. Montreal wasn’t necessarily a Cup favorite that season under Price. The Hawks, with Huet or Niemi, will be one, undoubtedly.
Seventeen games to go and the decision hasn’t gotten any easier.