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Another day, another team, but Niemi still having fun

Now with Canadiens, working with former goaltending coach, confident he can play at high level

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

BROSSARD, Quebec -- His mask was white, blank. His goalie equipment was white with black and gold, to fit the Pittsburgh Penguins, but his pads had red stickers over the gold, to fit the Florida Panthers. The stickers were starting to peel.

What mattered most for Antti Niemi on Wednesday, though, was that his practice jersey displayed the crest of the Montreal Canadiens. He has another team, his third in three weeks, his fourth in five months. But he has another chance, however fleeting it might turn out to be.

Niemi's teammates forced him into the middle of the circle to lead stretching. Defenseman Jordie Benn, who played with him with the Dallas Stars the past two seasons, gave him a playful face wash.

"The new guys, you've got to give it to them a little bit, put them in the middle and make it kind of awkward, but funny awkward," Benn said. "He laughed after. I was hitting him in the face with my glove. I'm sure my glove doesn't smell that great when I put it in his eyes. Just making him feel welcome."

 

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There's no other way to say it: This stinks. But Niemi makes no excuses, doesn't whine and won't quit.

"I'm just having fun," Niemi, 34, said in the Canadiens locker room, with a Panthers-logo toiletry bag on the shelf behind him. "I think I can play in the top level."

Niemi won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. He was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy with the San Jose Sharks in 2012-13, when he led the NHL with 24 wins in a 48-game schedule and had a 2.16 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. He had a 1.87 GAA and .930 save percentage in 11 games in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

His game dropped off the next two seasons with the Sharks, then fell further the next two seasons with the Stars. Now it has hit a new low.

Niemi signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Penguins on July 1 to back up Matt Murray. After struggling in three games, he was placed on waivers Oct. 23. He was claimed by the Panthers the next day because of an injury to Roberto Luongo. But after struggling in two games he was placed on waivers again Monday. He's 0-4-0 with a 6.74 goals-against average and .822 save percentage in five games this season.

Video: CBJ@FLA: Niemi shuts down Dubinsky's chance

To be fair, he played the second game of a back-to-back three times with the Penguins, at the Blackhawks, at the Tampa Bay Lightning and at the Lightning again. He came in cold to relieve James Reimer twice with the Panthers, against the Lightning yet again, and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"Yeah, that's true," he said. "But … I've got to stop the puck."

Niemi was claimed by the Canadiens on Tuesday. His wife is still in Dallas.

"It's tough," he said. "And you don't really want to commit too much when you don't know what's going to happen."

Who knows how long he'll stay in Montreal? Or if he'll get a chance to play? Starter Carey Price has a lower-body injury but said Tuesday he would return soon. Backup Al Montoya has a concussion.

When a reporter started to ask coach Claude Julien on Wednesday whether Niemi might play during a back-to-back next week, Julien cut him off. Charlie Lindgren will start against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; TSN2, RDS, FS-A, NHL.TV). The Canadiens will go from there.

Video: PIT@TBL: Niemi denies chance with superb sliding stop

For the Canadiens, Niemi is insurance, perhaps short-term insurance. Expectations are low. But for Niemi, this is a reunion with goaltending coach Stephane Waite, who worked with him with the Blackhawks. Niemi credits Waite with giving him structure without changing his game too much.

"This is quite a long time ago, so we're not necessarily saying we're going to bring him right back to where he was," Julien said. "But there's definitely some things [Waite] feels he can do to help him out."

Niemi said there was nothing technical about it. He just had to be confident, track the puck well and battle.

"It's more just playing simple and play the style I used to play," he said.

There was something to admire about Niemi on Wednesday. He's fighting it. He's fighting for it.

"It's obviously a lot of travel," Benn said. "He got in late last night. But he's not the type of guy who's going to come in here and complain about that he got in at 1 o'clock in the morning. And he's still out there."

Just as Benn said that, Niemi walked into the room, one of the last off the ice. He talked to a scrum of Montreal reporters about the hardest time of his career. Someone asked for his reaction when he heard he was going to the Canadiens, knowing Price and Montoya were injured but expected to return.

"What's my reaction?" Niemi said.

"Yeah."

"Just had to head to the airport."

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