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Rookie Niemi has Hawks on brink of Cup

Thursday, 05.27.2010 / 8:43 AM / 2010 Stanley Cup Final - Blackhawks vs. Flyers

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Rookie Niemi has Hawks on brink of Cup
Antti Niemi may be in his first NHL season, the 26-year-old goaltender has led the Chicago Blackhawks to the brink of their first title in 49 years.
CHICAGO -- This was well after Jonathan Toews refused to look at the Clarence Campbell Bowl last Sunday. It was nearing closing time for the media inside the Chicago Blackhawks' celebratory dressing room, yet there was Antti Niemi, formerly the king of the three-word answers, yapping with reporters.

The Hawks goalie had to on his fourth wave of interviews by now, and he had to be tired, both from the 60-minute game he just played in so masterfully and from the line of questioning.

Niemi has become a big deal in Chicago and, really, the hockey world at large. He's one of the stars of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, a hit that just keeps on delivering on the same storyline. But as any one of those reporters he spoke to last Sunday can attest to, you'd hardly know that Niemi is a blossoming playoff star by talking to him.

 
For instance, someone asked the Finnish goalie if he understood the magnitude of what he had helped the Blackhawks accomplish by beating San Jose to win the Western Conference championship.

"I don't know," Niemi answered. "It depends on what it is."

What it is? How about 18 years since the Blackhawks have played in the Stanley Cup Final, 37 years since they won a game in the championship round and 49 years since they won the trophy.

Niemi said the extent of his knowledge of the Blackhawks before this season was that Ed Belfour, Christian Ruutu and Jeremy Roenick played for them. He had to be told they were an Original Six franchise.

"One of my buddies from Finland said once that it's easier to play away from Finland because you don't get all the pressure or you're not watching all the news channels," Niemi said. "Maybe it is a little bit to my advantage not feeling the history that way."

As these playoffs have gone on, Niemi has at least learned about the history here, the magnitude of what winning the Cup in this city would mean as well as the fraternity of Chicago goalies he's now a part of.

Glenn Hall, Tony Esposito. Ed Belfour. Antti Niemi.

"Yeah, it's huge," Niemi allowed. "It's a little bit overwhelming, too, even for me."

He used that word, overwhelming, but it's pretty hard to believe him.

You see, Niemi is as incredibly confident as he is unbelievably relaxed. It's why he's been so good in the playoffs (12-4, 2.33 goals-against average, .921 save percentage, two shutouts), and why he was able to sit in front of his locker last Sunday and modestly talk about himself in front of dozens of reporters itching to get a scoop on him that may just not exist.

"Way calmer, more patient and more confident," Niemi said in describing himself now as opposed to the start of the playoffs. "Even if we lose I want to be as confident so one loss doesn't take me down. But maybe I try not to be too fiery because my approach is whatever happens, I'll stay focused on the next puck."

If it seems near impossible for a first-year player to be so impressive under such intense pressure, you have to remember Niemi's background.

"Even though it's his first year in the League, he's not 20 or 21 years old like most of the young rookies you see coming up," Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "He's 26 years old, pretty mature."

Niemi, who is too old to be classified as a rookie in the NHL (he's not eligible for the Calder Trophy), played three seasons in Finland's top pro league before coming to North America. He played a full season with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, Chicago’s top farm team, before making the Blackhawks out of training camp eight months ago.

"He's very mature, kind of laid back," Keith added. "You know, maybe all the cheering and all the loud noises don't really get him worked up like it would somebody else."

Beginning to wonder yet if the guy even has a pulse?

Absolutely he does, John Madden said. Hard work gets Niemi's heart pumping.

"He'll be first on the ice and last off the ice every single practice," Madden said after calling Niemi the hardest-working player on the team. "Not once did I ever see him leave the ice early and he was always the first one out there.

"We would do shootout at the end of almost every practice and he would take like 50 of them, no lie. Honest to God, he would take every single one of them. There were like 12 guys taking shootout and I know I would go three or four times, so if you break it down that's like 40-50 breakaways that he would face at the end of a 45-minute practice. It's pretty amazing. That's how hard and how much he wants to win and get better."

But as hard as he works, who knew he had this kind of run in him?

Niemi was great in the regular season, but until the end he was splitting duties with Cristobal Huet. He also had limited postseason experience on his professional resume coming into the postseason.

He played in 12 playoff games in Finland over two seasons and only two with Rockford last season. Combined, Niemi was 4-9 with one shutout.

"I wouldn't say he's proving me wrong, but he's exceeding even our expectations," Toews said. "He just seems so cool and collected. All the praise and everything that's being thrown his way, it just seems like it doesn't matter to him. He doesn't even seem that excited about it. He just wants to play hockey."

Now he just wants to win the Stanley Cup.

"For sure it would be a huge thing," Niemi said, "and a long time coming here."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl


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