This past week, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he wanted one of his goaltenders to take charge as the team headed down the stretch.
Shutting down the league's most prolific offense would certainly help Antti Niemi.
After watching Cristobal Huet absorb a tough loss, Niemi is expected to get another chance to impress as the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals visit Sunday.
The Blackhawks (44-17-5) appear headed toward their first division title in 17 years, but their goaltending has been inconsistent the past couple of months. That prevented them from taking advantage of chances to pass San Jose for the Western Conference lead, and their deficit grew to three points Saturday.
The 34-year-old Huet has struggled at times since signing a four-year contract worth $22.5 million before the 2008-09 season, and is 6-5-2 with a 3.10 goals-against average since Jan. 8.
That seemed to open the door for the 26-year-old Niemi to take over, but while he's won four times in his last six appearances, he's also posted a 3.32 GAA over that span.
However, he had a solid effort Wednesday night at home against Los Angeles except for a 1:52 stretch in which he gave up consecutive goals. Patrick Sharp bailed him out by scoring 2:08 into overtime of a 3-2 win.
The Blackhawks could use another such effort from Niemi, who has never faced the Capitals, after Saturday's 3-2 loss in Philadelphia. Marian Hossa gave Chicago a one-goal lead with 7:09 remaining, but the Flyers took advantage of defensive breakdowns to score twice in the final 2:04, including Chris Pronger's winning goal with 2.1 seconds left.
Quenneville, though, wouldn't blame Huet for the defeat.
"The goaltending was great tonight on both ends," he said. "They did their job. That's why it was a tough ending. It's a frustrating loss, but we're excited about tomorrow's game and we'll move ahead."
The Capitals, meanwhile, will try to avoid their fourth loss in five road games and sixth in 10 overall following a 17-1-0 stretch.
Despite that drop-off, Washington clinched its third straight Southeast Division title Thursday night and holds a comfortable 14-point lead over Pittsburgh in the race for the Eastern Conference's top seed.
Like the Blackhawks, the Capitals (45-14-9) have struggled at times defensively, but they've compensated with an NHL-best 262 goals -- a whopping 3.85 per contest.
As expected, two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin has led the way and the league's points leader is five shy of topping 100 for the fourth time in his five seasons. Ovechkin has scored only two goals in the past nine games but has recorded six points in the last three, including two assists in Friday night's 3-2 loss to visiting Tampa Bay.
Like Quenneville, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau wouldn't lay the defeat solely on goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
"We got outworked, and we didn't play the way we're capable of playing, and that's the reason we lost. It had nothing to do with goaltending," Boudreau said. "We should be able to score -- with that lineup -- three goals a game."
It was Boudreau's team that outplayed the Blackhawks in last season's meeting at the Verizon Center. After Jose Theodore allowed two goals in the first 11:41, the Capitals responded with four unanswered scores in the 4-2 victory, including two by Ovechkin.
Washington, though, has won once in its last four trips to the United Center and lost 5-0 in its previous game there March 19, 2008. Sharp and Jonathan Toews scored two of the Blackhawks' four first-period goals in that win.