-- You could almost hear the San Jose Sharks sitting around their TVs watching Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final asking each other the same question.
"Where was this Antti Niemi when we were playing the Blackhawks?"
After allowing 2 goals or less in each game of Chicago's sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference Finals, Niemi allowed 3 goals in the first period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday.
After two periods, Niemi had allowed 5 goals on 26 shots.
But when the chips were down, the 26-year-old rookie produced a perfect third period and gave his team the chance to emerge with a 6-5 victory Saturday and 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"I thought he was great in third period," Patrick Sharp
said of Niemi, who only had to make six saves over the final 20 minutes. "That's what the great thing about Antti is. It doesn't matter how many he lets in, he's always going to make that next save. I thought when it was a tie game and we got the lead there, he played his best hockey. Very sharp toward the end."
Niemi won't send the film of Game 1 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and a six-save period won't get him on many highlight shows. But he made two big saves late in the period on Jeff Carter and Danny Briere to preserve the lead.
Mike Richards let a long shot go from the blue line with some bodies in front of Niemi, including the dangerous scoring duo of Simon Gagne and Carter. Niemi was able to see through the screen and stop Carter's redirection and control the rebound with just 5:27 remaining.
Briere's blast from the top of the circles with 2:06 remaining was snared by Niemi and was the last great chance for the Flyers.
"I felt Grade A, pretty good at first. Of course, giving up five goals is not good for your focus," Niemi said. "I can't get too negative about the goals and started thinking about those too much."
Niemi certainly wasn't at his best, but it was hard to fault him on most of the goals.
Ville Leino was credited with the game's first goal when his shot from the right wing was stopped by Niemi, resulting in the rebound kicking off defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson
and into the net. Scott Hartnell's power-play goal was the result of a net-mouth scramble in which Niemi made multiple saves before the puck was chipped over him.
Briere put the Flyers ahead 3-2 when he followed his own shot from the slot and popped the loose puck home while nary a Blackhawks' defender laid a body on him.
Blair Betts' first goal of the postseason that put the Flyers ahead 4-3 was probably the one Niemi would want back. Aaron Asham's goal was a one-timer off a broken play that Niemi had no chance of stopping.
"They got point-blank chances, chances that we normally don't give up," Blackhawks winger Kris Versteeg said. "We got to clear pucks and play smarter. The way he rebounded and kept a level head and played smart, man, that's a lot of props to him to be able to stick with it and really get a win tonight."
While Flyers coach Peter Laviolette pulled Michael Leighton after allowing 5 goals, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he never entertained the thought of yanking Niemi.
"I thought the goals we gave him, I think our coverage wasn't as sharp as needed to be," Quenneville said. "They put a lot of pucks at the net, created a lot of confusion. I think we have to be sharper in that area.
"I wasn't looking at the goalie to make that change. I thought he gave us a chance, and I thought he did what he had to do, particularly in the third."
Niemi gave up 5 goals in 40 minutes in Game 1 of the Blackhawks' second-round series against the Vancouver Canucks, but responded with 24 saves on 26 shots in a Game 2 victory. If he can do the same in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Blackhawks could come away with a commanding lead in the series. Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DLozoNHL
Author: Dave Lozo | NHL.com Staff Writer