HELSINKI -- These Finns sure have a flair for the dramatic, despite their well-earned reputation for humility.
Much was made of the fact that only two Finns were playing in the 2009 Compuware NHL Premiere Helsinki series here at Hartwall Arena, but, in the end, two Finns -- Ville Koistinen of Florida and Chicago's Antti Niemi -- were enough to make the first NHL games in Finland an event that won't soon be forgotten.
Saturday night, in the series' second game, it was Niemi who stepped into the spotlight, much to the delight of the 11,526 that filed into Hartwall Arena. Niemi, starting in place of No. 1 Cristobal Huet
, made 23 saves to earn the shutout, and more importantly, send Chicago back home with three regular-season points in its pocket after the 4-0 victory.
"It's been a great experience, all in all," Koistinen, Friday's first star, told NHL.com. "I think I could almost stay here.
"Two Finnish heroes was the perfect script for the event. The fans got behind their own boys, and they did good. What could be better for a small country like Finland?
"Yesterday’s game was great for me, and I'm sure Antti is really happy right now. These are the moments we'll look back at later on, when we're sitting by the fireplace with a brandy and cigar."
It was the first shutout of Niemi's NHL career and it came so close to his hometown of Vantaa. To cap off the accomplishment, he was named first star.
"It's an unbelievable experience," Niemi said. "First to play an NHL game in your home country and so close to your hometown, then to get your first shutout -- it's incredible."
Amazingly, Niemi did not earn the backup job until the final day of training camp on Thursday when Corey Crawford
was sent to the minors. Niemi had just three NHL appearances under his belt before Saturday night's historic start.
But Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville showed no hesitation in starting the rookie, even though Chicago could have gone home with just one point had Niemi not done well.
"It was a good opportunity, basically in this kid's hometown," Quenneville said. "I thought he played a great game. It was a challenge for him and I loved the response, you have to give him a lot of credit."
, Pat Kane, Pat Sharp and Dustin Byfuglien had the goals for Chicago.
Niemi's heroics came just 24 hours after Florida's Koistinen sent this city abuzz with a performance for the ages in Friday's game. In that contest, a 4-3 shootout win for Florida, Koistinen scored the winning goal in the shootout, added a tying goal in regulation and took the first-star award.
"That's great for him to play at home," Kane said. "I played in Buffalo my first year and that was a great experience. For both of those guys to play the way they did in their home country, that's great. To see the reception he got from the Finnish fans for the first star, that's awesome for him. He played really great. It's not like he had a lot of lay-up saves."
It's hard to say which performance was more compelling, but the 23,503 Finns who were on hand at Hartwall during the two games -- and the millions of other Finns that watched on TV -- will no doubt have fun arguing that topic for the next few weeks.
Quenneville went with Niemi after Huet stopped just 21 of 24 shots in Friday's loss. Saturday, Florida again struggled to generate shots against a highly mobile Chicago defense.
But on the 23 occasions Niemi was called upon to stop the puck Saturday night, he was flawless. His best work might have come in the first 73 seconds of the second period when Florida stormed the zone and fired off six shots after managing just three in the first 20 minutes.
Niemi denied Gregory Campbell three times in that sequence, got Rostislav Olesz
twice and fronted a slapper from Bryan McCabe to get the Finnish fans -- and a vocal contingent of fans that made the trip from Chicago -- chanting Niemi's name.
"The first period might have been the hardest because I didn't have any shots," Niemi said. "It's no fun when you have no shots."
Friday night, Florida erased three, one-goal deficits before winning in the shootout. But there was no comeback Saturday night as Chicago never took its foot off the accelerator, again putting Florida's Tomas Vokoun under siege.
One night after making 52 saves, Vokoun faced 33 shots in Saturday's loss.
Campbell was the first to solve Vokoun Saturday night, threading a slapper past Vokoun, who was screened by Dustin Byfuglien. Koistinen, the hero a night before, was in the penalty box at the time.
Kane was next on the score sheet, scoring a backhanded goal off a fat rebound in the slot after Vokoun denied Sharp. But Sharp got his own power-play goal in the final minute of the second period when his backhander on a 2-on-1 rush eluded Vokoun. Early in the third, Byfuglien scored Chicago's third man-advantage goal in just five attempts.
Kane, Sharp and Byfuglien all had goals in back-to-back games here in Finland.
Now it is time for both teams to head back to North America and get on with the regular season. Both teams flew home immediately after the game for some well-deserved rest.
Chicago doesn't play again until Thursday, traveling to Detroit to open its divisional schedule against a Red Wing team that played a two-game set in Sweden to open the season. Florida, meanwhile, picks up again on Friday with a trip to Carolina.
"In the end, we got two points out of it and that is better than nothing," Florida defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said. "It was good advertising for the NHL and I hope the fans enjoyed it. It sure seemed like they did."
Shawn P. Roarke NHL.com Managing Editor