-- When the 2009 Compuware NHL Premiere games were announced, starting a game in front of his family, friends, and 12 000 other Finns became Antti Niemi's dream.
In Friday's regular-season opener he had to settle for the second-best alternative – dressing, but sitting on the bench – and he was happy even with that. It's a long season, after all, and just getting the foot in the door is important for Niemi.
"My goal was to dress for the regular-season opener and it looks like that's going to happen, so I will just have to work hard and hope that I'll get to play some games," Niemi said Thursday.
After Friday's game, a 4-3 shootout loss for Chicago against the Florida Panthers, Niemi did indeed get the nod from Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, making the game against the Florida Panthers his fourth career NHL game.
"I can honestly say that I was really nervous," Niemi said.
So, what did this bundle of nerves do? He took a page out of the Ville Koistinen playbook, pitched a shutout and left the ice, waving to fans as the game's first star.
"I saw (former LA King) Esa Pirnes at the rink before the game and he said that since (the Panthers') Koistinen was the star of the game (Friday), it's my turn tonight. I can't say I believed him," Niemi said after the 4-0 win over the Panthers.
Niemi faced just three shots in the first period, which he called the most difficult part of the game, due to the lack of shots. Late in the third period, the Panthers were desperate to get on the board, peppering Niemi with shots, but he survived.
"We tried to get the shutout for him, but they pressed him real hard," Hawks center John Madden said. "We didn't give him much help and he had to make all the saves on his own, more than one at a time, too. He was just terrific. It was good for him, and I'm real happy for him, and I know he's happy, too."
According to an old hockey adage, you're as good as your last game, and right now Niemi is hot. And one game can be a turning point for a whole career.
"One game can definitely be important early in your career especially if you have any doubt in your mind about belonging in the NHL," Madden said. "He shouldn't have needed to make that many saves tonight, but he did, and he rose to the occasion. It was nice to see that he was the star of the game."
Niemi will take it all one game at a time.
"Of course it's better to play well than not, but I don't think one game is an indication on the season," he said. "I have no idea what the coaching staff thinks, but I'm sure the time for that comes in Chicago."
Last season, Niemi saw a little over seven periods of NHL action, spending most of the year with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs. This past summer, Niemi was re-signed to a one-year deal. With one big change.
"It was important for me to get a one-way deal, even if it doesn't mean anything as such, but it told me that the hockey club believes in me," Niemi told NHL.com on the eve of the regular-season opener.
Niemi snuck out the back door from the Finnish SM-liiga to the NHL. Something of a late bloomer, Niemi signed his first Finnish Elite League contract with Pelicans, Lahti in 2005, at 23, having spent the previous three seasons in Mestis, the Finnish second-tier league.
In 2007, he played his first game with Team Finland and played 49 games with a 2.35 GAA and a .926 save percentage. When he signed with the Blackhawks in 2008, the news was met with some surprise in Finland.
"Looking back, the turning point in my career was to get out of Mestis and get into the Elite League and especially to Pelicans where I had good coaches in Hannu Aravirta and (former Atlanta Thrashers' goaltender) Pasi Nurminen who had made the switch to being a goalie coach," Niemi said.
"I'll just try to do the little things right, make sure the foundation is there, and do my best at practices. That will then carry over to the game. Some days are better than others, sometimes I'm tired. It's all mental," he says.
A year in the minor league has helped Niemi get mentally stronger. The travel, the schedule, the wear and tear of the long season isn't always fun and games.
quot;There were times when it was really hard, and I'm sure I've matured and grown as a person," he says.
On the ice, that shows with cooler and calmer goaltending.
"I haven't made huge changes to my style, I was a butterfly goalie already in the Finnish league, but maybe I'm calmer and don't try to do too much anymore," Niemi said. "The Blackhawks have a great goaltending coach in Stephane Waite, he can teach the latest techniques and tricks. He's top notch."
While Cristobal Huet is the team's starting goalie, Niemi hopes to get a couple of dozen games this season.
"In an 82-game season, even the backup gets to play 20-30 games, which would be just fine in the Finnish league," Niemi said. "I'm not as interested in how many games I'll play as I am in how well I play those games. As long as I can play at a level I'm happy with, it doesn't matter whether I play 20 or 25 games."
One down. Many more to come.
Author: Risto Pakarinen | NHL.com Correspondent