After Tuesday night's 2-0 shut out win over the Phoenix Coyotes, that's where Antti Niemi should stand on coach Joel Quenneville's depth chart when the playoffs begin.
Niemi was spectacular in his sixth shut out of the season, blanking the hottest team in the NHL while facing 28 shots, many of which were in heavy traffic. Throughout the game, Niemi took goals away from Coyotes by throwing orthodox netminding out the window and attacking the puck. It worked, and Niemi was the deserving number one star of the game.
Helping Niemi's chances was Brent Seabrook, back after missing two games thanks to James "Cheap Shot" Wisniewski. Seabrook has struggled since early January, but was dominant in his first game back; the Seabrook that showed up on the ice Tuesday night was a player that hadn't been in the red No. 7 sweater for quite some time.
He was credited with three hits and two blocked shots in an effort that encourages Hawks fans moving forward. His hit on Vernon Fiddler in the second period, and subsequent ragdoll toss of him to the ice, brought the crowd to its feet.
Seabrook played 22:41 as Quenneville was able to better distribute minutes throughout his rebuilt defensive group against the red-hot Coyotes. Duncan Keith again led the team in ice time, playing over 28 minutes, and Niklas Hjalmarsson also eclipsed 22 minutes in the victory.
Dustin Byfuglien again played exceptionally well next to Hjalmarsson and at the point on numerous power play opportunities as the message from behind the bench was evidently heard: better defense wins games.
The other message from Quenneville early this week was "60 minutes." No, Mike Wallace didn't appear for the pregame pep talk, but the Blackhawks shook off the rust and doubt from a handful of recent late collapses to finish strong in front of Niemi.
Patrick Kane started the scoring early in the second period with a wicked wrist shot from the left point that displayed a sniper's aim. It was Kane's seventh goal in the Hawks' alternate jerseys this season. Marian Hossa topped off the scoring later in the second period through traffic.
Phoenix netminder Ilya Bryzgalov did all he could to keep his team in the game, stopping 30 of 32 shots on goal (.938), but the Hawks defense and Niemi were better on Tuesday night.
The loss snaps a nine-game winning streak for the Coyotes that propelled them to a tie atop the Western Conference standings with the Blackhawks entering Tuesday's game. The regulation loss, though, drops them to fourth; San Jose won in regulation (I know, they still do that?) and jumped the Coyotes into second place. The Blackhawks are now one point ahead of the Sharks with a game in hand.
Kane's 81 points through Tuesday's game are the most for any Blackhawks player in a full decade; Tony Amonte had 84 in 1999-2000 and is the last Blackhawks player to have over 80 in a season. The last Hawks player to pass 85 points in a campaign was Jeremy Roenick in his 107-point 1993-94 season.
Kane's 53 assists are already the 25th-best single-season total in franchise history, as the last Hawks player to put up a better total was Roenick with 61 in that same 93-94 season. The 81 points for Kane currently ranks eighth in the NHL.