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Niemi: Master of perseverance

Finnish backstop is the Canadiens' nominee for the 2017-18 Bill Masterton Trophy

by Dan Braverman @CanadiensMTL /

MONTREAL - Antti Niemi didn't know how things were going to go when he first came to Montreal in November, but he did know how he would approach the situation.

The Finnish netminder, after all, had just been claimed off waivers for the second time this season after stops in Pittsburgh and Florida, and was determined to keep an even keel as he worked to get his NHL career back on track.

"I probably go back there to my own mindset, which I wanted to keep the same as before, coming here. Which was just to work hard, day in and day out," recalled Niemi, who had played the previous two seasons with the Dallas Stars before signing a one-year contract with the Penguins last summer. "Playing better, I felt I didn't want to change my mindset."

Niemi played just three games for Pittsburgh before they waived him, which resulted in the 34-year-old being snapped up by the Panthers. But with Roberto Luongo returning to health not long afterwards, the native of Vantaa, Finland only made it into two games in south Florida before he was waived once again and claimed by the Habs.

For a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, bouncing around the League like a journeyman could not have been easy, but Niemi chose to go with a zen-like approach to his troubles.

"There were tough times, but you're never really sure about the future in this business," said Niemi, who captured hockey's ultimate prize in his first full season with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but I decided, why not keep going and trying, letting it happen if it's going to happen."

What did happen was that Niemi did an admirable job stepping in as the Canadiens were hit with a plague of injuries - both in the crease and out of it - that saw them lose the services of Carey Price and Al Montoya for extended periods of time.

In 17 games with the Canadiens this season, Niemi has posted a 2.25 goals-against average and .936 save percentage - with six 35-plus-save efforts and his 36th career shutout among them - stunning numbers for a man some thought might have been playing out the last of what has so far been a 10-year NHL career.

Video: TBL@MTL: Niemi rejects Point's shorthanded breakaway

And with that, the Montreal chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced on Tuesday that Niemi would be the Canadiens' nominee for the Bill Masterton trophy, awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. 

Given what he's seen of Niemi's work ethic and attitude since arriving, Claude Julien has not at all been surprised by his play between the pipes.

"He's come in here from day one, I just found this guy to be competitive. I don't know what happened before, but I don't think I was disappointed with how he competed right from the get-go," praised the Habs bench boss. "What I've liked about him from the first day he was here was his attitude and his approach to the game. He's a real pro who works hard in practice. It's something that seems to be contagious, too. The guys really rally around him. You talk about perseverance, you talk about a guy who couldn't have had a worse start coming and then, playing the way he has lately, it's pretty impressive."

Video: NYR@MTL: Niemi robs Buchnevich with the glove

The results can certainly be attributed in part to the backstop's reunion with Habs goaltending coach Stephane Waite, who occupied that same role with the Blackhawks when Niemi was there.

"It's been great working with him again," added Niemi. "Just doing the small things every day, I think that makes the difference."

Other than Niemi's work ethic and his reunion with Waite, neither he nor his head coach could pinpoint what else has made the difference for the 6-foot-2, 215-pound puckstopper. But whatever the reasons, Niemi feels at home in Montreal and wouldn't mind sticking around.

"I feel like in hockey, it's a big thing that once you're playing well and feeling good about your game, you feel at home," described Niemi, who says he's received texts from friends around the League congratulating him for his recent play. "It's been great here, and I would like to be here."

Whichever way things go after his one-year contract expires in the summer, Niemi vows he'll keep the same mindset that earned him the Masterton nod as he strives to continue his NHL journey.

"I've tried to keep that since I came here. Whatever is going to happen, I'm going to focus on doing the right things and not truly focusing on the results," he concluded. "I tried to think that I'm just going to go and do my job every day as well as I can, and see what would happen."

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