When the Chicago Blackhawks let Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) leave via free agency in July after helping the club end a seven-year playoff drought, questions were raised about the state of the club’s goaltending.
Chicago goes for its fifth shutout of the month Saturday night when it visits Nashville to take on the Predators in the start of a home-and-home series between the Central Division’s top two teams.
Last season with Khabibulin and Huet sharing time, Chicago made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, but lost to Detroit in the Western Conference finals. When Khabibulin joined Edmonton, Huet was elevated to starter and Niemi later made the club despite only three games of NHL experience.
Thanks to them, the Blackhawks (24-9-3) has allowed a league-low 74 goals and few pucks have gotten past either one lately.
Niemi blanked Tampa Bay on Dec. 13 and Huet answered three nights later by shutting out St. Louis. Huet continued his scoreless string with a 3-0 victory over the Red Wings on Sunday before Niemi duplicated the feat with 33 saves in a win by the same score Wednesday in Detroit.
Huet, named the NHL’s first star of the week Monday, has already equaled last season’s total of three shutouts, including a 2-0 win over Nashville on Oct. 24. Niemi has notched four shutouts while going 8-1-1 with a 1.59 goals-against average - a number that drops to 0.98 while winning his last five starts.
With 51 points, Chicago is tied with San Jose for the West lead but Nashville (22-12-3), which finished at the bottom of the Central last season, is only four points behind those clubs. A key to that surprising turnaround is balance as J.P. Dumont(notes) and Martin Erat(notes) lead the club with 24 points while three others have at least 22.
However, after scoring 23 goals during a four-game winning streak, the Predators fell 4-1 at Vancouver on Tuesday. Patric Hornqvist’s(notes) goal with 5:24 to play helped Nashville avoid being blanked for the sixth time this season.
“There were too many areas where they had a higher compete level,” coach Barry Trotz said. “More urgency. Harder on the puck. More determined.”
Hornqvist has scored five of his 11 goals over the last five games and was named the league’s third star Monday. The right wing managed two goals in 28 games as a rookie last season.
Trotz will likely go with Pekka Rinne(notes) in goal following a lengthy layoff. Though he was lifted after giving up two goals in the first 5:01 of a 6-3 loss to Edmonton on Dec. 17, Rinne is 14-6-2 with a 2.75 GAA this season, and beat the Blackhawks 2-0 on Oct. 29 in Nashville.
The teams will meet Sunday in Chicago for the final time in the regular season.