Chicago Blackhawks: Pining for Antti Niemi over Corey Crawford an Annual Ritual

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Chicago Blackhawks: Pining for Antti Niemi over Corey Crawford an Annual Ritual
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Antti Niemi stopped every shot he faced against his old team, opening a fresh round of debate for 'Hawks fans.

Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi. Two goalies separated by a groin pull two years ago.

The two netminders faced off Wednesday night in San Jose. For most of the evening the two former Rockford Ice Hogs teammates kept their current teams in the game with outstanding work in the net.

The difference was a deflected shot skipping past Crawford and providing the only goal in the Shark's 1-0 win over the Blackhawks. Chicago's silver lining is that the effort was there on the road against one of the big dogs in the Western Conference.

The bottom line still shows the 'Hawks with a three-game losing streak. It also brings up old wounds.

Niemi's 34 save shutout of the Blackhawks brings the memories of his painful departure from the organization after his ascension in net in the cup season of 2009-10. If not for an injury to Crawford in that season's training camp, the two goalies could have been in opposite creases Wednesday night.

Instead, it was Niemi who played the part of playoff hero while Crawford toiled for another season in Rockford. It was Niemi who the 'Hawks could not afford to hold onto in the cap purge that followed.

Ironically, it was the player not chosen out of the 2009 preseason to get the big contract Niemi was seeking with the team. Timing worked out for Crawford in Chicago, just like Niemi got his deal from the Sharks.

In terms of salary, both goalies are receiving nearly identical checks this season. With Niemi in the first season of a four-year, $15.2 million contract and Crawford beginning his three-year, $8.25 million deal, both young goalies got what they were looking for. Niemi just got it from Doug Wilson instead of Stan Bowman.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Chiacgo brought the intensity Wednesday at the HP Pavilion, but couldn't find a way past Antti Niemi.

Both Niemi and Crawford's should be in net with their respective teams for the foreseeable future. Coupled with both team's status as contenders in the conference, it should give 'Hawks fans case for debate regarding the goalie that got away.

With both goalies turning in performances like Wednesday's standoff, the pining for Niemi isn't going to completely subside. I doubt it ever will.

It may not be healthy or fair to discuss the Blackhawk's fortunes with Niemi still in net. How would he have fared in Chicago last year with another goalie, perhaps Crawford, backing him up?

Remember that Niemi was far from perfect in the early going last season for the Sharks. Could Crawford have taken the job from Niemi last season as he did from Marty Turco?

It does no good to speculate, of course. Things went down the way they did. Now both the Sharks and Hawks have talented young players in the crease.

Niemi now holds victories in four of the five games he has opposed his former team. Two of those wins come over Crawford in low scoring affairs. Nearly a year ago, the two were nearly equals in San Jose's 2-1 overtime win in the HP Pavilion. Niemi came up one save better again Wednesday night, but Crawford showed he's capable of winning his share of these match ups.

It's likely that the two will meet up again this season, where Crawford will have the chance to square their head to head series. Whatever the result, it won't stop the wondering of what might have been if Crawford had been the healthy one two years ago.

Live in the now, goes conventional wisdom. Could we deal with that mantra in a playoff series?

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