NEWARK , N.J. -- Anyone questioning the mettle of Chicago Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi down the stretch got just the performance they needed to see in a huge spot on Friday night.
Two days after posting his seventh shutout of the season, Niemi was at it again in his first career meeting against New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur in a playoff-like atmosphere. Niemi stopped 32 shots through 65 minutes before denying two more in a shootout to help the Blackhawks rally for a 2-1 victory. The 26-year-old goalie has now stopped 53 of 54 shots over his last two games for the Blackhawks.
Niemi, who denied New Jersey's Jamie Langenbrunner on the opening shot of the shootout with a left skate save and then Zach Parise with his right pad by doing the splits, got all the support he needed when Jonathan Toews converted on Chicago's first attempt on Brodeur, and the Hawks got the win when Ilya Kovalchuk was wide in the third round.
"I know that sometimes (Brodeur) likes to put his glove there and flash the leather up high," Toews said. "He'll give you the top glove and it's pretty appealing, so a lot of shooters shoot for it and he's waiting for it. I decided to take a chance."
He made good with a rocket just over Brodeur's left glove to put the Devils on their heels.
The sellout crowd of 17,625 at the Prudential Center was preparing to celebrate a victory when Kris Versteeg took an off-balance slap shot from the right circle that deflected off the stick and toe of defenseman Mike Mottau and went through the legs of Brodeur with Niemi pulled and just 26 seconds on the clock.
It marked the third time in the last five games that the Devils were either beaten or tied in the final minute of a period.
"It is a concern because I think we're going to play some tight games in the playoffs and losing games like that can change the momentum of a series," said Brodeur, who was also splendid with 25 saves. "We have to bear down in those situations. With a minute left, we have to be desperate. The puck needs to get out; we need to get it out by kicking it, batting it … anything. It's got to get out."
Devils coach Jacques Lemaire agreed.
"You have to know how to play when there's only seconds left," Lemaire said. "You can't try to make plays if they have the puck. We had a chance to get it out along the wall. Maybe we could have battled a little harder. You just need to get it out."
Versteeg's goal came off assists from defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who had a team-high five shots on Brodeur, and Marian Hossa.
"(Niemi) has been unbelievable all year for us," defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "He's been huge and real big for us down the stretch. He's won us some big games and (Friday) he was great. He kept us in the game and gave our skilled forwards a chance to tie it. Then he played great in the shootout. A guy like Marty has been there before and knows how to win tight games, so it was good to see us come up with that goal.
"It was one of those games where we had to get out there and battle and really fight for that last goal there."
Kovalchuk's errant backhander ended a game that saw 59 shots, 45 hits -- and no penalties. It was Chicago's first win in New Jersey since Dec. 30, 1997, and the first penalty-free game in the NHL since March 28, 2001, when the Boston Bruins beat Toronto 3-0.
"I wanted to go on my backhand but missed the net, so what are you going to do," Kovalchuk explained. "I tried to go over his pad but missed it. Both goalies were tremendous."
Parise admitted Niemi was the difference.
"He played really well," said Parise, who generated four shots. "From a personal standpoint, he made some really nice saves on me and great saves all game. I thought he was the difference because I think we deserved to win that game."
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was proud his goaltender's effort.
"I thought (Niemi) made key saves -- he was big and solid and busy, too, tonight," Quenneville said. "It was a big win for him and for us. I like the response we're getting from him. He played three games in four nights and it looked like he handled it well.
"His approach is conducive to it," he added. "He goes out about his business, is in control and focused on trying to stop the puck. You have to commend him for how he's handling different situations all year. He's grown in his game and his mental approach. Not too many things bother him."
The Hawks, 7-7-2 in their last 16 games, extended their Central Division lead over the Nashville Predators to seven points. The single point moved the Devils back in front of Pittsburgh and into first place in the Atlantic Division -- both teams 44 wins and 95 points with five games to play, but the Devils own the next tiebreaker because they swept the season series from the Penguins.
Kovalchuk opened the scoring for the Devils with 40th goal of the season 5:49 into the first period. With fellow Russian Vladimir Zharkov providing a screen in front of Niemi, Patrik Elias took a feed from Zharkov behind the Blackhawks net and fed Kovalchuk barreling down the slot for the tip-in. It's the sixth consecutive season in which Kovalchuk has reached the 40-goal mark.
Niemi, who was making his fourth straight start, kept Chicago within striking distance in the first when he made 11 saves. He also made a big pad save off the stick of Travis Zajac 3:07 into the third off a giveaway.
Niemi also received a helping hand from Seabrook 7:12 into the third when the big defenseman blocked Parise's backhand wraparound attempt into an empty net.
"Patience was the topic tonight and staying with it even though we were down early," Quenneville said. "Antti kept us in there with critical saves, but I still thought we hung in there."
The Devils, who have five games remaining before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, begin a three-game road trip on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes at RBCCenter.
|Power Play %||21.5%||20.7%|
|% on Road||25.0%||25.6%|
|% at Home||18.6%||16.3%|