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SportsMonday: All About Antti

I would exclaim "whew!" in response to the Hawks' series-tying 2-0 victory over Nashville on Sunday evening, but going into the game it didn't seem like many folks were even moderately worried. There is the ongoing concern about the goaltending, of course (specifically whether rookie Antti Niemi will hold up over the long, long haul of the Stanley Cup playoffs). But in the short term there was widespread confidence the Blackhawks would find a way to bounce back, and eventually prevail, against the pesky Predators.

Beachwood Baseball
  • The Cub Factor.
  • Agony & Ivy.
  • The White Sox Report will appear on Tuesday.

  • And I know that because I engaged a respected polling firm whose operators spoke with hundreds of Hawk fans in the 48 hours between Games 1 and 2. Sure I did. Either that or I'm wallowing in the sort of generalization about the local sports scene that usually drives me nuts. I've got my finger on the pulse on this one though. I just know it. Then again, the margin for error is plus-minus 40 percent.

    Again, I'm not saying folks aren't worried plenty about Niemi, even if Saturday's shutout was the first for the Blackhawks in the playoffs in 14 years. Ed Belfour was the last to do it for gosh sakes. That almost endless string of non-shutouts was almost as ridiculous as the Hawks going a dozen-and-a-half years without a division title - another streak that has finally come to an end this spring.

    But the Hawks can beat the Predators with Niemi.

    And it helps when he doesn't give up goals so soft that Downy is in touch about an endorsement deal.

    That first goal that skipped past the Hawk netminder in the series opener on Friday? That was beyond brutal. And it was the sort of letdown that could be fatal at a crucial juncture against a better team further down the line.

    Also, any time the Hawks want to start improving on their 1.5 goals/game average would be fine by us fans.

    As for some Sunday specifics:

    * "Reunited and it feels so good. Reunited and it's understood." Peaches and Herb's 1979 hit was about a love affair but clearly it also applies to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith and Seabrook worked well enough together to star for Canada in the Olympics a few months ago. They are certainly a good enough tandem to lead the Hawks where they need to go at this point. Actually the big question is whether the rest of the Hawk defensemen play well enough so that Seabrook and Keith don't have to approach 40 minutes in ice time any time soon.

    * The teams of Dustin Byfuglien and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jordan Henry and Brett Sopel were solid on Sunday. But this is another part of the team that makes a fan worry about the big picture. Byfuglien was downright bad in the first period Sunday. An ill-advised cross-ice pass was almost intercepted at the Hawk blue line a couple minutes into the game. If a pick had occurred, Nashville would have been in with a dangerous scoring opportunity seconds later. And a few minutes after that, Byfuglien did a pirouette with the puck before surprising no one by giving it away in his own end.

    Fortunately things stabilized the rest of the way. Sopel in particular was inspirational with his willingness to sacrifice his body for shot blocks. He absorbed several blasts that we know will leave big-assed marks.

    * Analyst Steve Konroyd was sharp and the importance of several of his early points of emphasis was borne out by later events. He spoke in the first period about how Nashville was winning the "board battles," and it was clear early in the second period, when the Predators played their best hockey of the evening, that prevailing in those little scraps for the puck was sparking the visitors' strong play. Later, when the Hawks desperately needed a little insurance, it was Patrick Sharp's turn to fight through opposing pressure to tip the puck ahead off the boards in perfect position for the onrushing Patrick Kane to scoop it up and begin an odd-man rush.

    Kane's goal, after a slick little second assist on Dave Bolland's power play backhander in the second period, meant Kane was deserving of a spot among the game's three stars. Speaking of Bolland, Konroyd noted early that Hawks coach Joel Quenneville hadn't beaten around the bush when talking about his second-line center. He had said simply that Bolland had to play better if the Hawks were to have success. Sure enough, Bolland broke up the double shutout in the second period with a perfectly placed backhand goal after Kane had passed to Jonathan Toews, who slipped it over to Bolland.

    * Duncan Keith's late tripping penalty and Patrick Sharp's even later infraction (he made one of the Predator defensemen very angry with him with some sort of little cheap shot) certainly weren't welcome sights. But Sharp being sent off was almost a blessing in disguise. It happened with just under three minutes remaining. The Predators then pulled their goalie to make it a 6-on-4 power play. Usually when teams have a man advantage because they emptied their net, the opposing team has to be careful about firing the puck out of its end if it wants to avoid icing. But the penalty eliminates icing. And sure enough, the Hawks successfully killed the final penalty by firing the puck down to the other end on several occasions.

    Baseball Brief
    I do know how to pick 'em I tell ya'. I wasn't sure about the Cubs going into this season but I was confident the Sox were headed in the right direction. Now the team I made my clear-cut favorite to win the AL Central is scuffling in ever worse ways, enduring the ignominy of a three-game sweep at the hands of an Indian team expected to battle with Kansas City for last in the AL Central. At the same time, the worst team in the National League was taking two of three from the Cubs at Wrigley. Given all that has occurred, I agree to abbreviate the portion of this column devoted to baseball. In fact, this is the last word.

    -

    Jim Coffman rounds up the sports weekend every Monday in this space. He welcomes your comments.

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