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For a league that glories in rough stuff on the ice, customarily there is restraint to the interactions of NHL teams off it. Voices are muted. Beeswax is minded. But when, during the pillow fight over Ducks defenseman James Wisniewski's suspension-worthy hit on the Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook last month, Anaheim general manager Bob Murray threw down the gauntlet at Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, he nailed the Blackhawks right in their soft underbelly.
"I strongly suggest Joel worries about his goaltending," Murray said, "and stops trying to run the NHL."
Chicago, whose goaltending ranges from relatively untested to periodically unreliable, indeed has reason to fret as the Stanley Cup playoffs open this week. But the Blackhawks aren't the only elite team that will be watching its goalie, or goalies, through the cracks of splayed fingers. Washington, another team with obvious Cup aspirations, has pressing issues of its own. Both clubs, which rank one-two in regular-season goal differential, have similar dilemmas—each has an overpriced and often problematic veteran matched with a promising younger goalie without much portfolio—leaving question marks at a position best served with the finality of a period. And though San Jose and Vancouver, the two teams with the next-best goal differentials, do have reputed go-to goalies, both have been mired in a post-Olympic malaise. "This has been a strange year," says Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. "I can't remember so many top teams starting out [the playoffs] with questions about their goaltending."
The 2010 playoffs: The puck stops somewhere.
Let's start in Chicago, city of broad shoulders and ample five holes. The combined save percentage of its bubble-wrapped goalies—the Blackhawks allowed an NHL-low 25.1 shots per game—is a humdrum .901. Of course statistics such as save percentage or goals-against average hardly paint a nuanced portrait of a dazzling team that owns the puck like Chicago. But middling numbers are red flags even if they don't become flashing red goal lights.
Because Chicago was nuzzled up against the salary cap and didn't want to rejigger its roster at the March 3 trading deadline to pursue a top-flight goalie such as Florida's Tomas Vokoun, Quenneville will open the postseason with Antti Niemi, a combative, butterfly-style rookie who beats up a puck as much as he stops it. His understudy, now in his second disappointing season in Chicago, is 34-year-old Cristobal Huet, the quietest Frenchman since Marcel Marceau. Huet, in the opinion of an opposing veteran goalie, "seems to lack mental toughness. When things go bad, he starts looking real small in the net."
Maybe Huet would cause less angst if his salary were as low-key as he is; Huet is halfway through a four-year, $22.5 million contract, a windfall he earned when Chicago was smitten by his 11--2 record and 1.63 GAA down the stretch for Washington in 2008. The eight-year vet has been a popular teammate in all four of his NHL stops, rarely losing equanimity and always embracing responsibility for weak goals, which tend to come in bunches. When Quenneville ventured an increasingly rare Huet start on March 25, Columbus burned him for seven.
Meanwhile, Niemi, who's third in the NHL with seven shutouts, has a spotty playoff record: he's a combined 4--9 in the Finnish elite and American Hockey leagues. "Antti's been pretty good for us," Quenneville says. "I like his quickness and size"—the 6'2" 210-pounder is an inch taller and five pounds heavier than Huet—"and I like his [aggressive] approach." Still, with Huet indisposed during a West Coast swing last month because of flu, Chicago recalled Corey Crawford from the minors and started him over Niemi in the first of back-to-back games. Crawford badly mishandled a puck to gift-wrap a Ducks goal in a 4--2 loss.