SAN JOSE—I have in my gnarled and arthritic hands a crinkled clipping from the august New York Times, dated April 16, 2010. The headline is as follows: “Entering Playoffs With Many Stars, Just Not In Goal.”
Surprise! The story is about the Blackhawks and their unknown soldier between the pipes, Antti Niemi, who went from Pelicans Lahti to Rockford IceHogs to No. 1 in Chicago, earns only $827,000 for manning what arguably is the most important position in sports, yet is so green he might as well be a vegetable.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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, which has earned numerous Pulitzer Prizes, was not breaking any news here. Most experts throughout the National Hockey League concurred that the Blackhawks would be vulnerable in net, and truth be told, so did thousands of nervous fans in Chicago.
“What did Niemi play, six games before Christmas?” mentioned Eddie Olczyk, star of NBC/Comcast/Versus/Channel 9/talk radio/summer hockey schools. “I mean, who knew that he would do what he’s been doing?”
Now, 13 games into the post-season marathon, authorities have launched an investigation into identifying the coolest rookie goalkeeper since Ken Dryden entrusted to lead his team to a Stanley Cup while registering the pulse rate of a toll collector; Antti Niemi is a person of interest.
He stoned the San Jose Sharks, 2-1, with a 44-save calisthenics display Sunday in Game One of the Western Conference final, then boarded the team bus back to the hotel like he was going to fetch his car at remote airport parking. Yawn.
Aren’t goalies by nature somewhat weird? Glenn Hall used to vomit before, during and after games, and he never even ate in the media dining area. Tony Esposito, another Blackhawks Hall of Famer, was a similar beauty. If he talked before games, it was to himself only.
Wife Marilyn recalls the night they drove to the Stadium on an expressway that was a sheet of ice. Cars around them were zigging when they should have been zagging, but with Tony-0 at the wheel they miraculously avoided being part of a wreck. Not a word was uttered about surrounding spinouts. But after the game was over, and Tony was back on speaking terms with society... “I still have my reflexes, don’t I?” he said to Marilyn of their near miss six hours earlier.
Compared with these guys, Niemi belongs on Mt. Rushmore. He doesn’t have ulcers, and is not a carrier, either. As defenseman Duncan Keith, who came up huge again Sunday, explained, the guy who allegedly would cause the Blackhawks agita is in fact a source of comfort. Niemi inspires confidence, despite the form chart.
“You look at the write-ups before each series,” noted Troy Murray, the Blackhawks’ radio analyst. “You know, where they break down each part of a team. Forwards, Defense, Goalies. So far, it’s always been the other team that supposedly has the edge in goal. Nashville, Pekka Rinne got the nod in most matchups. Then it was Vancouver and Roberto Luongo . Now it’s San Jose, and most of the charts have Evgeni Nabokov as the better goalie. Meanwhile….”
Meanwhile, indeed. And if Niemi is destined to sedate those who fret about his lack of credentials, the Blackhawks are conspiring to disprove other random theories, notably the notion that this squad is not physical enough to survive the grind of four playoff rounds featuring games virtually every other night, except for intramural breaks when you arrive in San Jose on a Wednesday and then buy enough underwear to get you to the next Wednesday.
“That’s been going on around us for a while,” said Dustin Byfuglien, the 257-pounder who clicked for Sunday’s winner and is vying for the title of Mr. May. “But what we are is team tough. We help each other out, and I don’t think you’re going to see anybody pushing us around.”
The Blackhawks, for all their emphasis on speed and finesse, were a physical presence against the Vancouver Canucks. Against the large-though-not-lumbering Sharks, the Blackhawks did a fair amount of banging in Game 1. Ben Eager was a force. Brent Seabrook registered several hits, as did Troy Brouwer.
“We heard that last year, that lack of toughness thing,” added coach Joel Quenneville. “I don’t mind people thinking that way. But, not true. You see how our guys are when the situation calls for it. They’re like pitbulls.”
Except Niemi, of course. I asked him if he realizes what a big deal he is now, in Chicago, in Finland, in May.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, as though I asked if he had change for a dollar. There is only one way you can be sure he knows this is the Stanley Cup playoffs. He has succumbed to the peer pressure of growing a beard.