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Blackhawks Fri Mar 26 2010

Hawks humbled, stumble into playoff spot

Ouch. That was an ugly one.

The Blackhawks had one of their worst overall games of the year last night, losing to the Columbus Bluejackets 8-3. From the first goal the Jackets scored 32 second in with a shot along the goal line that banked in off goalie Cristobal Huet's legs, it wasn't the Hawks night.

Huet was chased after giving up 4 more goals by the middle of the 2nd period, and Antii Niemi gave up 1 more before Huet played out the string in the 3rd, where the Hawks managed two goals late to make the score slightly less embarrasing.

After a big win Tuesday night against Phoenix to take over 1st place in the Western Conference and alleviate some growing concerns, Chicago looked tired and flat in Columbus, teamwide.

However, thanks to Calgary's loss to the New York Islanders, the Blackhawks did manage to clinch a playoff spot despite the rout and San Jose reclaiming the top seed. So, you know, think positive.

On that note, a few other things crystalized in the rout:

Barring an injury or natural disaster, rookie Niemi will be leading the Hawks into the postseason. Huet didn't look sharp last night to start, and the two quick goals seemed to open the floodgates, though it needs to be stressed the effort wasn't there in front of him either. However, after playing well in his last game Mar. 13 despite the last-second loss, yesterday's game was a chance for Huet to put himself back in the conversation. He failed at that.

Niemi's been the more solid goaltender over the year, but an untested rookie rarely leads to playoff glory. In fact, only 3 rookies have ever led their teams to the Stanley Cup, Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Carolina's Cam Ward in 2006. The first two are now Hall-of-Famers, and Ward only got his chance after Carolina lost their first two games. Given that, it wouldn't be surprising to see Huet end up in net at some point in the postseason, but coach Joel Quenneville needs to start prepping Niemi to step up now, while still keeping Huet fresh.

A bigger concern exposed last night yet again was the defense. Though still short with Kim Johnsson and Brian Campbell out (though Brent Seabrook was in his 2nd game back after the concussion he sustained on the nasty hit in Anaheim last week), the game saw the D-men continually losing their positioning, their men, and the puck. After filling in admirably last week, Dustin Byfuglien showed part of the reason he was moved to forward in the first place, exposing his slow feet and bad reads.
When the Hawks play their system effectively, they control the puck, limit shots, and dictate the flow of the game, making them tough to beat. When they don't, things like last night happen. How far the Blackhawks will go in the playoffs relies less on who's in net than how the defense plays in front of him.

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