I wonder how Antti Niemi acts when he’s excited. I tried to find out Sunday night, sitting next to him after he pitched a 2-0 shutout, but I failed miserably. Apparently, I'm not alone.
“Tough to get a read on him,” commented Patrick Kane. “He doesn’t speak much English, you know?”
In any language, though, Niemi appears to have the perfect personality for a rookie netminder in a hockey crazed city while playing for a Blackhawks’ team that is supposed to go deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs. He allowed a squishy goal that launched the Nashville Predators toward their 4-1 victory Friday night, then exercised selective amnesia in Game Two, which was every bit as snug as the score indicated and felt closer than the shots—33 for Chicago, 23 for Nashville—would tell you.
“Don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” said Niemi, referring not to his mechanics, but to his moods. “The bad goal the other night, I think about it a little while, but only a little while. You think about what happened the other night and it doesn’t help. You just have to start over tonight.”
This series, like the other seven first round series, is 1-1 after two games. So, I don’t have to remind you that the Blackhawks lost the first two playoff games at home to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1995 and still won the series. And in a strange sort of way, the course of events thus far is validating everything coach Joel Quenneville and the other Blackhawks said about Niemi. Don’t worry about him. He’ll be fine.
In 120 tense minutes thus far, Niemi has yet to look overwhelmed, jumpy, or miscast. He received more energetic support Sunday night than on Friday night. Niklas Hjalmarsson saved a potential Predators’ tally late—“I was playing the other post,” Niemi recalled—but the Blackhawks played as though they are what they say they are with their Finnish masked man. Confident.
Kane, after some grunt work by Patrick Sharp, recorded his 11th goal in 18 postseason games to provide some breathing room early in the third period. At this rate, Kane will wind up with a statue in Chicago, and probably a restaurant in his name. Earlier, Dave Bolland finally beat Pekka Rinne with a goal that actually counted to make it 1-0. Shortly before, Niemi executed two clutch stops, the second with his right leg on Dustin Boyd.
“That was good,” said Niemi, getting really emotional now.
Anxiety was palpable in the first period after Jonathan Toews clanked the crossbar behind Rinne, to be followed closely by a disallowed goal. Bolland appeared to solve Rinne, but referee Chris Rooney, prepping for a rather busy evening, negated it, claiming he had blown his whistle. A majority of fans thought, no, he had just blown the call. I could tell you about the chant that went up in the United Center, but this is a family column.
Suffice it to say that 22,000 people seemed to be thinking alike. They didn’t need cue cards.