-- Antti Niemi
is undoubtedly the quietest guy in the Chicago Blackhawks
' dressing room, and that's just the way he wants it.
Heck, he's gone out of his way to acquire that status. Even as the postseason has progressed, Niemi has never had an interest in becoming more of a vocal leader.
"I'm not trying to be," he admitted to NHL.com on Saturday afternoon.
"By far," Patrick Sharp
responded when asked if Niemi wins the Quiet Guy Award. "But every once in a while, he'll say something funny and crack the room up."
Incredibly quiet but remarkably composed, Niemi faces the biggest challenge of his professional career on Sunday night, when he'll attempt to help prevent a three-game slide as the Stanley Cup Final resumes with Game 5 against the Philadelphia Flyers
at the United Center.
Games 3 and 4 marked the first time this postseason that the Blackhawks lost back-to-back contests. Much of that has to do with Niemi, who'll enter Sunday's action with a record of 14-6, a 2.55 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Not bad for someone who started only 35 games during the regular season, when Niemi shared the starting duties with Cristobal Huet
"I don't think I've played too bad so far," Niemi said. "I've been able to make the saves and I feel good about those. I feel pretty good."
Niemi seized control of the No. 1 job prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and has never relinquished it. It's not because he barged into Joel Quenneville
's office and demanded it. Judging by his demeanor, that's the last thing Niemi would ever do.
"He just quietly goes about his business, worries about what he has to worry about, and that's part of getting ready for the next game -- not bringing too much attention to himself," Quenneville said. "That's just the way he is … a real likeable teammate, a fun guy to have around.
"It's a situation where you have to commend him how he's approached going into these playoffs and how he has progressed and how he's handling the Finals."
Surprisingly, Niemi was never drafted. The 26-year-old Finn was signed as a free agent on May 5, 2008 and made his NHL debut the following season, when he appeared in three games. Two years later, he's the backbone of a franchise that is two wins from its first Stanley Cup championship since 1961.
"I remember when (agent) Billy (Zito) first found the guy," said Blackhawks forward Adam Burish
, also a Zito client. "He said, 'You're going to be surprised by this guy. He's awesome. He's really, really good.' All these Finnish guys that he's got, they're all awesome. I was like, 'OK, I'm sure you've dug up another one over there. I don't know how you find 'em, but you do.' I believed every word he said about him. It's been true."
Slowly but surely this season, Niemi earned the trust of his teammates. While he never said much on the ice or in the dressing room, his work ethic impressed those around him.
"Antti just shows up and battles," forward Andrew Ladd
said. "Even in practice, he never quits, never gives up on a puck. I think that translates into his game. It's part of the reason why he's been so successful this year."
"There's no question he's the quietest guy … I'm sure he gives you guys one-line answers," defenseman Brent Sopel
added. "But I sit next to him and we have a lot of fun together. At the end of the day, he's a great goalie and he works hard -- and he'll be ready for (Sunday) night, too."
That's when the Blackhawks will look for that elusive third victory in this series, which has seen the home team win every game. Philadelphia peppered Niemi with 30 shots on Friday night, including 12 in the third period. Clearly the goaltender would like to see fewer shots, but will Niemi make it clear?
"If he has something to say, he'll say it," defenseman Brian Campbell
said. "But we talk to him as defensemen and see what he wants us to do better. He goes out there and stops a ton of pucks."
On Friday, though, Niemi suffered something he hadn't all postseason -- a second straight loss. Nonetheless, the Blackhawks remain confident that Niemi will be the guy who leads Chicago to the promise land.
"He doesn't seem to get too rattled in there," forward Patrick Sharp
said. "He stays focused and he stays composed in big-game situations. He usually bounces back after a loss. We've got no problems with Antti. We know he's going to be great the rest of the year."
"I think we didn't play that bad," Niemi said of the back-to-back defeats. "We've still got the home-ice advantage. I think we just have to keep on focusing on the same things."
Focus is what has Niemi in this position to begin with. It's why, despite two losses in a row, the Blackhawks are only two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup.
"He's played well for us all year long," Sopel said. "He battles every night, every day at practice. He's a warrior out there for us. He's a great individual."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL