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Niemi a new man in goal for the Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- Brian Campbell never will forget the first time he saw Antti Niemi pull on a Blackhawks jersey.
It happened last season. The young Finnish goalie was a nervous wreck after being called up from AHL Rockford. As Campbell recalls, Niemi half-ran, half-walked to the ice and pretty much looked like a train wreck on skates.
"He's walking out for his first game and his pads are flapping everywhere and his chest protector was outside of his jersey," Campbell said Friday, following a practice at the United Center. "I couldn't believe this guy was going to play net for us. Usually goalies love their gear to look (a certain) way and be perfect. I was like, 'Whoa … OK, here we go. Whatever you say.'"
Just a little more than a year later, Campbell and the Hawks feel confident with Niemi in the net as they prepare to face high-powered nemesis Vancouver in a Western Conference Semifinal series that starts Saturday (8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC).
A much more relaxed Niemi just got his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a quarterfinal-round victory against Nashville, and posted two shutouts in the process. He also shook off a fluky goal on a bouncing puck in Game 1 that led to a loss. Niemi's ability to rebound from that goal wasn't a surprise to his teammates, who saw him do the same thing all season while splitting time with veteran Cristobal Huet and going 26-7-4 with a 2.25 goals-against average.
"You could see he was very nervous last year," Campbell said. "This year he just came in and he's been rock solid all year long. He's mentally stronger. You can see the difference in how much better he is this year. Right from the beginning he was just a lot more calm and collected."
That's a result of Niemi's relentless work ethic. Campbell said Niemi faces extra shots every day and always shows up early to the rink. That won't change anytime soon, according to Niemi. He wants to log as much ice time as possible.
"I'm at a stage where I still need the playing time," he said. "When I get more playing time, I get confidence out of that -- especially getting wins and playoff wins. That's huge for me."
He admitted it also will be fun to squaring off against Olympic champion Roberto Luongo. The not-so-fun part will be trying to stop Vancouver's multiple scoring lines -- especially the all-Swedish top line of Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Mikael Samuelsson.
When asked his plan for keeping the puck out of the net, Niemi kept it simple.
"I don't know if (there's) anything I need to change in my preparation," he said. "Just get ready the same way."
It's worked all season, so why change now?
And, as it turned out, Niemi's consistency was a life-saver for the Hawks, who didn't trade for an experienced goalie and watched veteran Huet crumble in the last month of the regular season. Niemi took advantage of his increased playing time and became Chicago's No. 1 goalie during a furious nine-game stretch to close the season.
"It wasn't given to him," Campbell said. "He just keeps working."
Niemi just sort of showed up in the Hawks' system two years ago as an unrestricted free agent. He played for three seasons in Finland's top professional league with the Lahti Pelicans, a team which Campbell -- who played one season in Finland -- recalls as the league's perennial doormat.
Niemi's stats were nothing to gawk over. Not even Hawks coach Joel Quenneville knows the answer to who, exactly, found him. Quenneville's first encounter with Niemi came as a Hawks scout last season. He watched him play an exhibition game against Dallas and left the building impressed.
"He put on an amazing performance in that game," Quenneville said. "I think he stopped about three or four 5-on-3s in the middle of the game and went on to get the win."
Yeah, but who discovered him?
"He was signed as an unrestricted free agent, I believe, two summers ago," Quenneville deadpanned. "That's how he came about."
Asked to expand, Quenneville just smiled.
"We can come up with that," he said with a laugh. "I don’t know who gets credit or who wants to take the credit. We'll give it to our pro scouting staff. Dale (Tallon) was the (general) manager at the time."
Campbell doesn't really care, so long as the former train wreck on skates is at his end of the ice Saturday night.
"I remember the first game in Nashville, we went into the first period tied 1-1, and we should have been down 4-1," Campbell said. "Even in that game he just kept battling. You know, he's won a playoff series now. Not many goalies can say that. There are a lot of guys in the League who've never done that."
Niemi has, flopping chest protector and all.

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