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Hawks' Niemi has gone from unheralded to unbeatable

by John Dellapina
CHICAGO  -- The highlight of his season was supposed to be the first game he played. But the way Antti Niemi is going, the highlight of his season just might be the last game anybody in the NHL plays this season.

When you managed to elude all 30 teams' radar in your draft year and remain a mystery to even your teammates entering your rookie season, simply getting a start in the first week of the schedule is a reason for celebration -- no less pitching a 23-save shutout in Helsinki, which just happens to be the city that borders your hometown of Vantaa, Finland.

When, just two months after you've finally been "discovered" at age 23 and signed by an NHL team, that team goes out and signs a veteran NHL goaltender (Cristobal Huet) to a long-term, big-ticket free-agent deal, it is clear you are not viewed as a hidden gem who will one day lead the franchise back to glory.

When you enter the postseason not only with no previous Stanley Cup Playoff experience but not one playoff series victory of any kind anywhere on your resume, you are not supposed to be the guy whose name a championship-starved city is chanting two games into the Final. You are not supposed to be the goaltender who in any way gets into an opponent's head -- unless that opponent is wracking his brain trying to figure out whether your first name is spelled with a double-t or a double-i.

Yet here Antti Niemi and that franchise and that city are up, 2-0, in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final and only two victories away from the Chicago Blackhawks' first Cup since 1961.

Astounding, really.

But only if you haven't been watching this guy play all spring or listening to him talk. He has done the former with eye-popping competitiveness and resilience. He has done the latter with sleep-inducing understatement. Given the combination, it's no wonder his teammates have come to trust him implicitly -- particularly in games immediately following those in which he hasn't exactly been brilliant.

"That's the way he is," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "His disposition is very laid-back. He's a very quiet, very unassuming guy, and he just moves forward. I think he just looks ahead, looking to stop the next shot, and refocuses. But, you know, you've got to commend his attitude and his preparation. At the same time, that's just the way he is."

Monday night's Game 2 of this Final was the latest such instance in these playoffs. While the international media and the players in both rooms spent much of Sunday wondering who would be chosen to start Game 2 for the Philadelphia Flyers, nobody even considered that Quenneville might switch from Niemi to Huet.

Of course, even while Niemi was giving up five goals -- the same number as Philly's Michael Leighton -- in the Hawks' 6-5 Game 1 victory, Quenneville said he never even considered pulling Niemi from that game, as his counterpart, Peter Laviolette, had done with Leighton.

Back between the pipes for his 18th straight start in this postseason, Niemi did what he has done after just about all of the subpar ones: he glittered. And what he has done after every one of the four he has lost: he won.

"His disposition is very laid back. He's a very quiet, very unassuming guy, and he just moves forward. I think he just looks ahead, looking to stop the next shot, and refocuses. But, you know, you've got to commend his attitude and his preparation. At the same time, that's just the way he is."
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville

This one began in the most unsettling way for a goaltender who wants to bounce back -- with a first period in which he hardly touched the puck. It then got wild in a hurry, with the Flyers going back to their Game 1 strategy of firing away, figuring that Blackhawks in shooting lanes might create screens and deflections rather than blocked shots.

Niemi flashed his fancy feet over and over during a final 40 minutes in which the Flyers unloaded 30 of their 33 shots at him. A split and toe save on a Mike Richards breakaway 7:28 into the second period got Niemi into the game, and he never left it.

Another pad save on Richards midway through the period and a reach-back glove snatch on an against-the-grain one-timer from Arron Asham four minutes later kept the game scoreless until Niemi's teammates struck twice in 28 seconds late in the second to stake him to a 2-0 lead.

The Blackhawks rarely left their own zone in the third. But Niemi was as relentless as the desperate Flyers were persistent.

The only shot that beat him all night was one that he couldn't see and  was deflected and  came on a Flyers' power play -- a swat at a bouncing puck by Simon Gagne that was headed low but then sailed high over Niemi off the stick of Chicago forward Marian Hossa while Philly's Jeff Carter erected a vision-obliterating screen.

That goal 5:20 into the third and the offensive-zone time by the Flyers that ensued sent a rumble of nervousness through the United Center stands. But no such distress was evident in the crease, where Niemi calmly repelled nine more shots -- including one with 7:40 left that was deflected, not once but twice, forcing him to perform a second extension of his left leg when the puck took off on new and interesting trajectories after Richards batted it down with his stick, only to have it change direction again off the boot of Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook.

When it was over, when the Flyers finally stopped coming at him and Niemi was asked to come to the interview room, somebody wanted to know how he manages to play his best in games immediately after he hasn't played near his best.

"It's hard to say, but it's a great thing that it's been that way," he replied softly, as if he had been asked about the Chicago weather having cleared late in the day. "I want to keep it that way later, too. Maybe it comes out of how I feel after the bad game or game allowing five or four goals. I don't know how it happens."

Neither could Niemi explain what had happened a few minutes before -- the only event of the night that truly overwhelmed him.

While conducting an on-ice television interview moments after the final buzzer, Niemi was overcome by the sound of 22,275 Chicagoans chanting his name. He gazed up into the stands, mouth agape, having come so ridiculously far from that night in Helsinki eight months before.

"Well," he said, "it's an unbelievable feeling how people react to our game."

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