Teammates won't let Huet face the challenge alone
In a matter of days, Cristobal Huet has gone from the forgotten man sitting by himself in the corner of the Blackhawks' dressing room to the guy who has the season on his shoulders.
Barring a miracle recovery from Nikolai Khabibulin, which isn't likely, Huet will start in goal Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena in a do-or-die Game 5 for the Hawks.
The Red Wings lead the best-of-seven Western Conference finals 3 games to 1, which means the Hawks are down to their last bullet.
After six weeks of strictly practice, Huet found himself in the eye of the hurricane in Game 3 when Khabibulin tweaked his groin and couldn't start the third period. Huet entered the 3-3 game and held the fort until Patrick Sharp scored in overtime.
It was a different story in Game 4, however, when Huet started and didn't play well in the Hawks' 6-1 loss.
Huet has become the center of controversy on talk radio and on the Internet from critics questioning if he can get the job done, not only against Detroit, but next season as the Hawks' No. 1 goaltender with the expected departure of Khabibulin as a free agent.
"He's a great goaltender and a great competitor," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said Tuesday. "You don't look at one player and one skater and put the blame on those guys for the penalties we took (in Game 4). It was a team effort.
"Obviously the goaltender is always the guy at the center of it all, but it was tough for him to come into a game like that. He's confident, and we're going to play better in front of him and make his job easier."
Huet was his own toughest critic much of the season and he didn't try to sugarcoat the fact he didn't think he was at his best in Sunday's loss.
"(Tonight) is going to be a game where we fight for our lives and we want to play better, myself first, obviously," Huet said. "It's going to be 60 or more minutes that's going to decide our future."
Interesting choice of words, but Huet's future with the Hawks likely isn't as shaky as some bandwagon-jumping media members might think. He has three more years remaining on the four-year, $22.54 million contract he signed as a free agent last July, and Hawks general manager Dale Tallon appears committed to him going forward to the 2009-10 season.
Khabibulin is set to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and the Hawks need at least one of their goalie's salaries off the books.
Even if the Hawks could trade Huet and his big contract, which is a long shot, there would be a risk in re-signing Khabibulin. First, he will be 37 in January and, secondly, there are his persistent groin issues.
Huet had a very good regular season with numbers comparable to Khabibulin's totals.
Huet appeared in 41 games with a 20-15-4 record, 2.53 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Khabibulin worked in 42 games with a 20-8-7 record, 2.33 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.
During the Hawks' nine-game winning streak in December, Huet won five times.
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville never has wavered in his belief Huet could be a winning goalie - and he's not about to start now despite Sunday's shaky performance in what was Huet's first start since April 11 in Detroit.
"You've got to bounce forward and look at the next opportunity," Quenneville said. "Goaltending is a position where you get a lot of scrutiny and a lot of attention, and going forward and looking at the next challenge and the next shot and next shift is how you've got to approach it.
"He won a big game in (Detroit) at the end of the season for us and we expect, if he plays, that he'll be fine."
Huet certainly knows what's at stake.
"There's no room for error," he said.
Blackhawks vs. Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, 6:30 p.m.
Radio: WGN 720-AM
At a glance: This is it for the Hawks, either win or their best season in more than a decade if over. Both teams have injury concerns. Martin Havlat will be a game-day decision for the Hawks, as will be Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk for the Red Wings. Hawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is doubtful. The Red Wings are 5-for-18 on the power play in the first four games.
Next: Game 6, if necessary, at the United Center, 7 p.m. Saturday.