Previewing the Chicago Blackhawks vs San Jose game

The Chicago Blackhawks have concluded the first half of their annual November "circus trip", closing out the Canadian leg 2-1. The last three games have been as inconsistent as the rest of the season: beating the Oilers 5-0; falling to the Flames 2-7; and then blowing out the Canucks 7-1.

Now the Blackhawks look ahead to the California leg of the trip, with three games in four days: Wednesday night at San Jose; Friday afternoon in Anaheim; and Saturday evening in Los Angeles.

Of all the dates that Blackhawks fans eagerly circled on their calendars this year, it is Wednesday's matchup that generates the most interest on this trip, for three big reasons.

The first, and most obvious, is that the Blackhawks not only knocked the Sharks out of the Stanley Cup run, but they swept the series. And the goalie who did so - Antti Niemi - now plays in Sharks teal. More on him later.

The second, of course, is that the San Jose Sharks attempted to poach away defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson during the off season, getting him signed to an offer sheet of $3.5M/year for four years. This surprise move forced the Blackhawks to match the offer if they wanted to keep the talented up-and-coming Swedish D-man that they had nurtured for three seasons, which of course they did.

Hjalmarsson unfortunately has had a bit of a rough start to the 2010-11 season, so far notching only 1 assist, 1 point, and a current -5 on +/-. At least he has finally climbed out of the basement for defensemen; racking up the bulk of his penalty minutes and a 2-game suspension due to a bad hit in an early-season game against Buffalo didn't help. In interviews since training camp, Hjalmarsson has spoken frankly and openly about the desire to prove himself to both his teammates and to the Chicago fans, to show that he is worth the salary that kept him on the Blackhawks. However, the whole team has struggled to regain chemistry after the post-Stanley Cup roster shuffling, and the D-lines have not been immune to growth pains.

With his regular blue line partner, Brian Campbell, sidelined for most of the beginning of the season with a knee injury, Hjalmarsson struggled to put together a solid start to his season. Coach Quenneville eventually split up the top pairing of Keith and Seabrook, and, with the return of a healthy Campbell, the blue line is finally beginning to settle down.

True to his words spoken earlier in the season, Hjalmarsson - as well as fellow defenseman Brian Campbell - noted that with Brent Sopel's departure, the other D-men would have to step up with shot-blocking. On one of the newest "One Goal" commericals, Hjalmarsson's voiceover states, "The puck can't get past the goalie if it can't get past me." And frequently, Hjalmarsson can be seen willingly throwing his body along the ice to absorb pucks; he took one at short range the other night that sent him briefly to the bench to recover.

While his play hasn't been perfect, he's given away the puck half the amount teammate Duncan Keith has. But in holding with his blocking philosophy, he's tied for 6th-most blocks in the league: 49, an average of 2.33 per game, while spending an average 18:39 TOI. He's already ahead of the curve for his performance last year, when he averaged 1.78 blocks per game; but his playing time has dropped a full minute TOI from last season.

Duncan Keith said post-game a few nights ago, "This is a new team, and we have to realize we can't just strap on the gear and go play hockey. We have to be focused as a team, and know what we're doing, and everybody working together."

The Blackhawks defensive lines have been working to getting back to the form they used last year, but it is taking time. Some reassuring trends:

- Three of the top 20 shot-blockers are all Chicago defensemen: Nick Boyton (51); Hjalmarsson (49); and Keith (45). The only other teams with more than one player in the top 20 are Philadelphia (three - Timonen, Pronger and Carle) and Atlanta (Sopel and Hainsey).

- Overall TOI is beginning to equal out on the Blackhawks. Duncan Keith still leads the team - and, in fact, the entire league - playing 27:58 average TOI; but this is down nearly 2 minutes per game than where it was.

- Chicago's SOG has improved to 33.52, while its SA has likewise improved to 30.13 (down nearly 5 SA per game). Defense is going to be very important against the Sharks, however, because although San Jose has struggled with their own blue line issues, they're still averaging 36.05 SOG a night while only allowing 28 SA.

The third and perhaps most compelling reason that fans are excited about Wednesday's game is who's in goal now: Antti Niemi, who backstopped the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup win in 49 years, now wears Shark teal and black. Niemi took the Blackhawks to arbitration this summer, and was awarded $2.75M - too expensive for the salary-strapped Chicago team to be able to keep him. Reluctantly - at least from the view expressed by the fans and his teammates - Niemi was allowed to walk and become a free agent, which eventually led him to the West Coast.

It was assumed that based on his record with the Hawks - and especially his fresh Stanley Cup win - that Niemi would emerge as the dominant starting goalie for the Sharks. Surprisingly, that hasn't happened: fellow Finn Antero Niittymaki has grabbed the position with a 7-2-3 record, 2.07 GA and .919 sv%. By contrast, Niemi has seemed to struggle to find his groove, so far tallying a 2-4-1 record with a wince-worthy 3.91 GAA and .878 sv%. (Compare that to his 2009-10 average 2.25 GAA and .912 sv%.)

His record isn't truly indicative of his talent; the Sharks have played more than one bad game in front of him.

Sharks coach Todd McLellan has been playing coy for two days: in typical Sharks fashion, he will not tip his hand before game day and name his goalie for tomorrow. But would anything be more surprising than if he didn't start Niemi in goal in the Sharks first matchup against Chicago for the season?

The Blackhawks swept the Sharks to go on to the Stanley Cup final round. What better justice would there be for San Jose than to beat Chicago with the goalie that beat them, even if it's just a regular season game? Putting Niittymaki in goal for this game - even if, as McLellan says, he's more concerned about the two points than any idea of revenge - would be a letdown for the fans, and quite likely the players as well.

Jesse Rogers of ESPN-Chicago interviewed Niemi this week, and Niemi refuted the rumors and questions from this summer that he didn't know what was going on with his contract negotiations, stating that discussions were held both in English and Finnish so that all discussions would be clear. He also said that very little happened in terms of negotiations. Niemi expressed disappointment at not being able to stay in Chicago, but said he based his eventual decision about a new team based on what the team was like, and that he feels happy having ended up in San Jose.

If Niittymaki plays on Wednesday, there Would be a small diffusion of excitement that the Niemi vs the Hawks storyline brings to the table. Both teams need that level of excitement. And although Turco has been named as Wednesday's starter for Chicago, it's a compelling story who'd play against Niemi either way: the goalie who ended up with his job (Turco); or the goalie that Niemi beat out for the roster spot (Crawford), and the rest became history.

For both fandoms - Blackhawks and Sharks - this will be an interesting, highly-anticipated game. Both teams have struggled a bit in the preseason; both teams are sitting fourth in their respective divisions. The Sharks will be looking to prove they can beat the Blackhawks for multiple reasons; the Blackhawks need every point they can earn out of the standings. If both teams show up fully ready to play - no matter who's in either goal - then it will no doubt be a tight, exciting game of hockey and should be one of the highlight games for Wednesday night.


George Prax's picture

Wow, the Hawks are ridiculously inconsistent... tonight should be a very interesting game. And it is interesting that both Niemi and Hjalmarsson are having slow starts... I still think the Hawks should have kept Niemi and taken the compensation for Hjalmarsson .