A win above all else
Sure they have issues, but as Olympic break nears, Hawks should just keep it simple
CHICAGO -- There is no goaltending controversy for the Chicago Blackhawks: Tony O is still No. 1.
Hall of Fame goalie Tony Esposito had his own night Tuesday, complete with a pregame ceremony, free hats and plenty of adulation, as a full house battled wintry conditions to get a penultimate look at the Hawks before the Olympic break.
Antti Niemi night? That might be awhile in the making.
After a rough first period, Niemi might have wondered if he was getting pulled. After all, it has happened before. Niemi was starting back-to-back games for the second time this season. The last time he started two games in a row, he got pulled after giving up three goals in the first in Vancouver on Jan. 23.
This time, he gave up only two in the first, and with the score tied, the kid stayed between the pipes.
After giving up a lead with a late tying goal in the third period, Niemi came up big, stopping all five shots in overtime -- four coming on a power play -- and making two saves in the shootout. The Dallas Stars misfired another three times, as Kris Versteeg, the 10th shooter, was the first scorer in a 4-3 Blackhawks win.
Niemi improved to 15-4-1 for the 39-15-5 Blackhawks, winning his second straight game.
"He gobbled up everything," said Patrick Kane, who scored two goals in the first period. "It was good to see. One thing about him, we take breakaways on him in practice, and it's tough to score on him. It's good to see him step up in the shootout."
Niemi, who came in with a league-best 1.92 goals-against average in 19 starts, bobbled one of the goals, but was victimized by some open looks in front of the goal, one on a power play where a man was left wide open, and again in the third, when Loui Eriksson scored on a quick pass from Brad Richards from side-to-side in front of the goal.
Niemi, the placid Finnish backup, said the comfort of one guaranteed point for making overtime helped him relax. That's a good sign, I think.
"In the overtime, it's a different play," he said. "It's easier because you've already gained one point. There's not too much to lose."
The Blackhawks have been so consistently good this season that even a minor blip causes rabbit ears. Last week's three-game losing streak was their longest of the season. Was it a warning sign of all the problems that remain covered up when a team is winning? I don't know. What I do know is two straight wins with the chance for four will make the long Olympic break more palatable.
It's probably good the team isn't peaking at the wrong time, but they're not fading, either. Beating Dallas for the first time this season is nice, too, especially when your high-powered offense goes oh-fer in power-play situations for the sixth straight game and scores just once on 30 shots in the second and third periods.
"Yeah, we're searching for it," Kane said. "Sometimes you go through these slumps and these wins, and these games, give you a little bit of confidence. It's nice to not play your best some nights and still get the win."
Cristobal Huet was in net for both losses against Dallas, as he was for the Hawks' recent losing streak. Is this a goalie controversy brewing? Probably not. That will be settled after the Olympics. But Niemi proved again that he can play in crunch time.
"I thought he was solid," coach Joel Quenneville said. "He was very poised in the shootout, with his size and presence in the crease. And controlling pucks in front of the net is something he's improving. We're happy he's winning again and taking advantage of opportunities."
In truth, the Hawks shouldn't have to worry about who they have in net. Although they had trouble converting, they still peppered the Stars' Marty Turco with 40 shots. He made one particularly nifty save on a Dustin Byfuglien breakaway in the second. Things will turn around on the power play.
"We'll find our way again on the power play," captain Jonathan Toews said. "Sometimes you go through a couple games where you're not getting many. We've got to focus on not thinking, just executing and making plays work. Sometimes it just doesn't jell."
Kane, the team's leading scorer, scored both of his goals in the first, but was denied the Hawks' first hat trick of the season. His only hat trick came last year against Vancouver in the playoffs.
With thousands of free "Tony O" hats in the stands, he wasn't ignoring the possibility.
"You're definitely thinking about it a little bit," he said. "You get two there in the first and you have two periods to think about it. I had a couple more chances, but overall, I thought we controlled the puck pretty good. We just want to get to the net a little bit more with our line and things will work out."
Kane's goals were nice too -- first, a five-hole blast, and then, for all you hockey novices out there, a wraparound beauty that can best be described as straight out of NHL '94.
"I've been working on that play with an assistant coach who comes out, and I try to roof it," Kane said. "I didn't roof it, but I was lucky it went in."
No, the Blackhawks aren't roofing every goal right now, but that's OK. Sometimes a boring ol' shootout win is good enough. And sometimes it's best not to think at all, like both Versteeg and Niemi said they tried to do in the shootout. And maybe that should be the Hawks' attitude the rest of the week and beyond.
"Just keep it simple," Versteeg said. "And hope it goes in."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.