Sharks Gameday: Sweet Home Chicago



5:00 PST
39-22-8, 86 points 37-24-8, 82 points
3rd in Western Conference
7th in Western Conference
98.5 KFOX,
Second City Hockey

By no means is Antti Niemi's return to Chicago as big as it was on December 30th. And with both teams smack in the middle of a grueling playoff push, the undercurrents of last season's Western Conference Finals appearance will likely be set aside in favor of a focus on the two points at hand-- especially when one considers the massive roster overhaul the Blackhawks went through this summer.

However, Niemi's return to Chicago does pose an interesting question-- with the 2011 calendar year bearing witness to some of the best goaltending the Finnish netminder has ever played, the question inevitably becomes "Did Chicago make the correct choice in letting him go?" Or rather, "Has goaltending been a real issue for the team this season?"

Corey Crawford has been serviceable this season, as a .917 SV% will attest to. He's essentially taken the reigns as the stalwart between the pipes, and when one considers the struggles Turco has had thus far, Chicago isn't really in a position to decide otherwise. After a rocky end to his stint in Dallas many expected the former Stars goaltender to find a revival of sorts playing behind Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but those offseason prognostications proved to be as fleeting as the Chicago sun-- a .898 SV% and a mere four starts in the calendar year has reduced Turco to Antero Niittymaki slash Carter Hutton slash there's-too-many-names-to-even-recall levels of faceoff charting prowess.

The funny thing is, Chicago has actually received better goaltending this season than they did last year. The tandem of Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi gave the Hawks a .903 SV% last season while Crawford and Turco have given Chicago a .909 SV%. In other words, if you're looking for a reason to explain the drop-off in Chicago dominance, looking towards the pipes shouldn't be your first course of action.

Chicago Blackhawks

3.20 2.72
3.20 2.48

Scoring depth is usually touted as a reason for Chicago's relative decline to where they were last season, and it makes sense to some degree-- a lot of solid role players such as Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, and Andrew Ladd were moved in order to accrue cap space, and guys like John Madden (who was a huge fixture on the penalty kill last season) were not re-signed in free agency.

Where Chicago has been hit the hardest is in the defensive end of the ice however-- the penalty kill has been godawful, they're allowing more shots on net than they did last season, as well as putting less pucks on net in the offensive zone. Players like Niklas Hjalmarsson have struggled-- even the previously infalliable Duncan Keith has had his fair share of issues this season. No longer is the team able to dictate play to the phenomenal degree they did in 2010, which has led to a situation where goaltending begins to have an effect.

Although Chicago's netminders have a higher save percentage this year, the lack of insulation from the team as a whole has highlighted the inadequacies and made goaltending a point of concern for the fanbase. No matter which way you slice it a .909 SV% isn't going to inspire much confidence unless shot totals are low, and for the Hawks this season, the shot totals haven't been able to overcome that factor (even if they give the 8th least amount of shots against in the NHL).

Is Chicago still a dangerous team? Most definitely so. Despite the fact that they are seventh in the West and will likely be playing for a playoff spot in the final week of the season (which won't be a peculiar circumstance in the Conference this season in the slightest) their underlying numbers are still very strong across the board. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook still make up one of the premier pairings in the NHL, and players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp (the list goes on) comprise a core that is very dangerous and able to make a huge impact on a teams results.

It's hard to call a team like Chicago a "sleeper" considering they are the reigning Stanley Cup champions, but much like the Dallas Stars, the makeup of the team has a lot of high-impact players at the top of the roster. Depth isn't their friend by any means, and that generally is the difference during the postseason, but a first round date with the Blackhawks isn't something that should be especially appealing for anyone in the West. I don't think they have the goaltending or depth to make another deep run, but if there's one thing you can't do is rule out a young goaltender with something to prove. Niemi did it last year, and there's always the chance Crawford is able to do it again.

San Jose heads into tonight's game on the heels of a two game losing streak. It's hard to call it that considering the circumstances involved (shootouts-- the bane of hockey's existence) as well as the performance of the team within those games (heart-- the organ essential), but as we've seen thus far this season, fortunes are able to change quickly, tides can be turned at the drop of a umbrella hat.

No one saw a 9-0-1 run coming after San Jose lost their sixth straight to Edmonton in January, and while I think a similar 180 would be even more surprising (and frankly, outside of the realm of possibility considering San Jose has been dominant even in their losses), there's always a chance that the fickle sport of hockey decides to play devil's advocate and throws a curveball down the stretch.

Two points on the table in Chicago. Welcome to The March That Matters.

Prediction: Sharks win 1-0. Goal by Pavelski, whose All-American smile makes Patrick Sharp look like Richard Kiel.