Friday October 16th, 2009

If you're willing to take Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville at face value, the decision to go with backup Antti Niemi against Edmonton on Wednesday night was all about getting the rookie a start in front of the home crowd. After backstopping the team to a franchise-record five-goal comeback win over the Flames in relief, the kid had earned his shot.

At least, that's what coach Q said before adding that no, there was no goalie controversy in Chicago.

Right. Just like there's nothing fishy about the Balloon Boy story.

Look, most times a backup's start is just a backup's start. With the compressed schedule and the need for rest and a little fine-tuning of the starter's game, they're bound to happen, usually against the widows and orphans and Nashville Predators of the league.

This time? No matter what words came out of Quenneville's mouth, the decision to go with Niemi sure felt like a vote of non-confidence in Cristobal Huet. After all, the Oilers weren't just any opponent. The visitors were dressing Nikolai Khabibulin, the same goalie who led the Hawks to the Western Conference Final last spring before defecting to Edmonton in free agency. The same goalie who'd been hurt by Chicago's signing of Huet the previous summer and was gunning to prove they stuck with the wrong man.

Chicago ended up winning the game, 4-3, but there was no doubt about the best netminder on the ice. Niemi was fine, but Khabibulin delivered a playoff-caliber performance, snuffing a Patrick Sharp penalty shot and breakaway bids by Jonathan Toews and Kris Versteeg among his 34 saves.

No matter how the Hawks spun the decision, it sure looked as if they were protecting Huet from having to beat his predecessor. If all that mattered were the two points, maybe it was the right call. But after allowing three goals on five shots in that disastrous performance against Calgary, the man Quenneville called "our No. 1 guy" badly needed to get back on the horse.

If Huet plays against the Oilers and delivers the win, then he's got something to build on. Instead, the team tossed him a cap, told him to sit on his highly-compensated backside, and tapped an understudy whose resume included appearances in five NHL games.

Huet had something to prove and Quenneville trusted him only to open the bench gate. He was back on the ice for the victory Thursday night over Nashville, but that was the same result any spare-to-fair goalie would have achieved against the pop-gun Preds. Holding that team to one goal on 13 shots got him the win, but even Stuart Smalley wouldn't say it proved Huet's good enough to carry the mail.

"He could be a little bit better," Quenneville admitted after the Nashville game. "Goaltenders are under a lot of scrutiny, but it's not like he's terrible or playing bad. He's been okay. There's another level, but I don't think the alarm button should be sounded."

Funny thing for the guy who smashed the glass and yanked the alarm chain to say. This may be a long season, but the consensus is that the leash on Huet is short. Two months, maybe a little more, to prove he can backstop a team with Cup aspirations. And you know, maybe over these next couple of months he will. Problem is, a relatively soft schedule means it could be a month before he gets the chance to face a truly stiff challenge, like when the Sharks visit on Nov. 15.

That assumes, of course, that Quenneville will trust him with that important start. After turning up his nose to Huet against the Oilers, that's hardly a safe bet.

If Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman is serious about keeping tabs on non-camp invitees, he might want to hop on I-94 and head to Chicago in time to catch the Stars take on the Hawks on Saturday night. While camper Stephane Robidas isn't playing well enough to crack a very deep blueline, the visitors will feature a pair of players whose early performances have at least earned them a look-see.

Multiple wrist injuries in 2008-09 reduced Brad Richards from a Team Canada staple to afterthought last summer. Even now, Canada's depth down the middle suggests he'll be in tough to earn a sweater in Vancouver. Still, with a point in every game and three consecutive multi-point efforts, Richards appears to have rediscovered the game that made him so dangerous back in Tampa where his slick passing and exceptional two-way play earned him the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy.

"He's a better fit for [Marc Crawford's] style," said one scout. "The faster pace brings out the best in him...that's the kind of game Canada wants to play. With the depth they've got you know good players will be overlooked, but he should be on their radar. [His hot start is] a good reminder he can fit the Team Canada mold."

Canada may be loaded down the middle, but there's a paucity of natural wingers. While it might be too early for a shot with the varsity, James Neal belongs in the conversation.

"He's everything you want in a winger," said one NHL executive when asked to name a dark horse candidate. "Strong on the puck, dominates along the boards, he can finish, he can create chances, he can handle [his defensive responsibilities]. He makes an impression every time I see him."

The only element separating Neal from a legitimate shot at the roster might be experience. With just 82 NHL games on his resume, he's awfully green. Bowling over Oilers and Canucks in October is one thing. Doing it against Russians and Swedes in February will be something else.

"It's [hard] to say if he's ready for that kind of pressure," the exec said. "He might not be as safe a pick as some other guys, and who knows if he's going to be seen enough [by the Canadian staff] to even register as an option. But there have been nights already this season where he's set the tone for the game, just asserted his will."

The home side has its own candidate with a hot start that has elevated him from dark horse to legitimate contender: Patrick Sharp is building a strong case for himself with a six-game scoring streak and some exceptional two-way play. If injury prevented Brenden Morrow or Shane Doan from participating, Sharp's speed and ability to fill multiple roles would make him an ideal fit on Canada's third line.

Another case of the grass not being greener: Any Dallas fans who switched to Dish Network from DirecTV as a result of the latter dropping Versus found their access to local Stars broadcasts abrogated by another fee battle -- this time between Dish and FOX Sports Southwest. The latter added 20 Stars games to its slate this season and was able to negotiate higher rates with most carriers as a result. Not Dish, though. While others finalized last-minute deals, the satellite provider announced on Wednesday that it would not carry the extra games, including that night's match against the Predators, just 30 minutes before puck drop. Friday night's contest against Boston also falls under the Dish blackout, forcing subscribers to find a bar, a friend or a ticket.

Negotiations are said to be ongoing, but that's what DirecTV subscribers have been told about Versus and channel 603 is still blacked out two weeks into the season.

"We are hopeful that FOX Sports Southwest and Dish Network can come to a resolution to allow all of our fans with Dish Network to see all of the Dallas Stars games that are broadcast on the network," said Stars spokesman Rob Scichili. "FOX Sports Southwest assures us that they are doing everything possible to come to an agreement with Dish Network." Dish representatives promised SI.com a response, but failed to deliver in time for deadline.

The secret of the Avs' surprise success

Lots of bouquets being tossed in the direction of goalie Craig Anderson for his hand in the Avs' hot start, and justifiably so. His 1.99 GAA and .940 save percentage rank him among the league's best and, at just $1.8 million, he's the best value-for-money at the position as well. But lost in the glare of those flashy numbers is the job done by coach Joe Sacco. Widely regarded as an underwhelming hire when he was chosen to succeed Tony Granato last summer, Sacco has his team adhering to a more onerous set of defensive responsibilities that has resulted in fewer odd-man rushes, which plagued them last season, while forcing more shots to come from lower percentage areas. In other words, Anderson's been good, but he's getting plenty of help from teammates who have picked up on Sacco's system with surprising alacrity.

That dedication also has helped propel the penalty kill, ranked 25th last season, to the top of the charts in the early going. Rookies Ryan O'Reilly, who scored his first goal Thursday night in Montreal, and T.J. Gallardi have revitalized the unit with a combination of hustle, positioning and appropriately aggressive play that was rarely seen last season. Drafted in the second round last summer, O'Reilly wasn't expected to make more than a perfunctory exhibition appearance before being returned to Erie of the OHL for further seasoning. Now he's the go-to forward on the PK. Tough break for Team Canada, which had him penciled in for a key role at the World Juniors, but it's hard to imagine the 18-year-old being sent back after his nine-game apprenticeship.

Driving his coach Wild

You get the sense it might be now or never for Minnesota forward Benoit Pouliot, whose career is veering perilously close to bust territory. The fourth overall pick in 2005 is blessed with the size, wheels, creativity and soft hands to be an elite forward. What's missing? Consistency -- and not from game to game, but shift to shift. One scout described Pouliot as maddening. "You wonder if it's ever going to click for him," the scout said. "I don't know if he wants it badly enough."

This might be a good time for Pouliot to demonstrate his intentions. A regular resident of Le Chateau Bow Wow under former coach Jacques Lemaire, Pouliot's been given a fresh slate by new coach Todd Richards. He said all the right things in camp about turning over a new leaf, but was relegated to the fourth line when his actions failed to match. Now he has another opportunity to show he gets it. With four of the team's top six forwards sidelined by injury (Martin Havlat, Petr Sykora, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck) and offensive engine Mikko Koivu mired in an early slump, the Wild need someone to step up.

Is Pouliot the guy? The team hopes so, but with just one assist through four games, and still showing a propensity for untimely penalties, there's not a lot of reason to believe he'll earn the extra ice that's there for the taking. If both he and the Wild continue to struggle, don't be surprised to hear his name front and center in trade talks.

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