Sarah Kustok stood at ice level, microphone in hand, ready to introduce her special guest. She handles these interviews all season, for the benefit of spectators at the United Center, and those watching at home on Comcast SportsNet. These exchanges are usually conducted quickly and without delay, but Monday night’s one-on-one endured several false starts. Antti Niemi, you see, was the star of the Blackhawks' 2-1 white-knuckle victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, and there is this chance that the next hockey match at the Madhouse on Madison will be in September, not Sunday.
So, with the exception of a very few who departed to beat traffic, it appeared that virtually all 22,275 loud and loyal fans stood in place, refusing to leave or allow Niemi to talk. A man of deeds instead of words, the frugal Finnish goalkeeper did not seem displeased. But as he heard his name being screamed, Niemi glanced up at the jumbotron showing his face, then at Kustok, both of whom were helpless to conduct a meaningful dialogue amidst such audience participation. Niemi’s mask was off, though, so he and his beard were obviously overwhelmed by all this love and affection.
“They really like you here,” someone mentioned later in the winning locker room.
“That’s good,” responded Niemi. “Let’s keep it that way.”
The building was on fire Monday night, even hours before Niemi stoned the Flyers and moved his team halfway to its first championship in almost a half century. Hundreds of people collected around the United Center by mid-afternoon, rain or no rain, and when the players finally showed for the warm-up, the sound system offered “All I Do Is Win,” by D. J.Khaled. This isn’t your grandfather’s Blackhawks, who practiced while the organist batted out “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” or left the ice after the game while the great Al Melgard closed with “The Lord’s Prayer.”
No, now the lights are dimmed ten minutes before the puck is dropped, and dazzling visuals whip the crowd into a frenzy. Monday night, a night when the Blackhawks wanted to play well enough they might not have to play here again, the mood was, to quote Niemi after he eventually was cleared to speak, “unbelievable.”
It didn’t hurt that the game was worth your while, or your money. If you didn’t know better you would have said the Flyers and Blackhawks were grumpy about having to work on a holiday. But you do know better because work is how the Flyers and Blackhawks made it this far. Pride is in at this time of year, and price is irrelevant. Players perspire for the Stanley Cup; now is when the owners make their money.
Monday night, the Flyers and Blackhawks brought their hard hats to the office. If you’re scoring at home, there were 72 hits and 33 blocked shots, not counting the 32 Niemi blunted with all sorts of athletic histrionics. After goals by Marian Hossa and Ben Eager late in the second period, the Flyers put it in overdrive. They did not run out of energy or hope. They only ran out of clock.
The Flyers repeatedly rattled Niemi’s cage, but only Simon Gagne solved him at 5:20 of the third. The only other thing to enter Chicago’s net was Jeff Carter’s helmet, during a scrum, one of several as mutual disaffection builds in this tournament. Eager and Chris Pronger each logged a misconduct at the final foghorn, just before Kustok asked Niemi if he had a minute to share some thoughts. “Just a little post-game chat,” Eager called it.
In their previous series against Montreal, Dan Carcillo of the Flyers was miffed when Mike Cammalleri stuck his tongue out. That came after Cammalleri scored a goal. Tomas Kopecky didn’t even have to do that to get Carcillo’s attention. He was lining up Kopecky for a hit but instead ran into Carter. A terrific wallop, except delivered to the wrong uniform. Carcillo and Kopecky then went nose to nose while play continued. The puck was live, but when you have something to say, you have to get it off your chest. This confrontation occurred early in the fray, a harbinger to be sure.
Other sights and sounds in the first period: Pronger flapping his glove toward Eager, as if to imply that the ex-Flyer was chirping too much. Then at 14:48, a standing ovation for a penalty call! Blair Betts off for cross-checking Adam Burish. It isn’t often you detect such excitement over a whistle, but it was the first Hawks’ power play of the final. Then, toward the period’s conclusion, Kopecky left for roughing and Mike Richards for elbowing, only Carcillo couldn’t bear to have his buddy Kopecky depart, so he did some yapping and took two minutes off for unsportsmanlike conduct.
When Richards shook free to hone in on Niemi, who saved nicely, it was the eighth minute of the second period and only Philadelphia’s sixth shot of the evening. But then the Flyers came back for more—two drives by Carcillo and a bullet by Arron Asham that was swallowed by Niemi’s glove. At the other end, Michael Leighton halted Duncan Keith, then a drive by Hossa on which Leighton took a sneak peek behind him, hoping not to see a puck.
The break occurred finally when Hossa tapped in a rebound off a scrum for a 1-0 Hawks lead at 17:09; only 28 seconds later when Eager fired from the right circle, Leighton, on his knees, just missed to his short, glove side.
The Blackhawks were backing up for much of the third period. It was as if they were so in awe of Niemi’s genius they opted to just hang out around his crease and watch him rob the Flyers. Antti did not have a spare moment to catch his breath, at least until he was summoned by television to enlighten and perhaps cure those critics who insisted that this fine Chicago team had only one weakness, between the pipes.