For the last two months, the Chicago Blackhawks
have been talking about how calm and composed Antti Niemi remains when the pressure is pounding on him.
The Finnish goalie proved it again Monday with a series-changing rebound effort that might have put him in the lead for the Conn Smythe Trophy after his sub-par -- yet still victorious -- outing two nights earlier dropped him down a peg or two.
MORE COVERAGE: NIEMI REBOUNDS | HAWKS EXCEL
Niemi made 32 saves as the Blackhawks rode him and a pair of lightning-quick goals from Marian Hossa
and Ben Eager late in the second period to a 2-1 victory and a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final over the homeward bound Philadelphia Flyers
"He doesn't get rattled easily," Hawks center Patrick Sharp
said of Niemi. "He seems to play his best in big games and we have a few more big ones coming up."
Wachovia Center will no doubt be rocking for Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, Versus, CBC, RDS), and the Flyers should feel good going home considering they are 7-1 in their building during the playoffs. But the Blackhawks have won seven straight road games, too.
Two more and they'll have their first Stanley Cup championship since 1961.
"You're in the Stanley Cup Finals and I don't think you should get comfortable at all," Hawks center John Madden warned. "These guys came back from 3-0 against Boston, so we're not taking anything lightly. We're not leaving any stone unturned."
Flyers goalie Michael Leighton
, who started despite getting pulled in the second period of Game 1, wrapped a strong game around goals by the previous snake-bit Hossa and Eager, the fourth-liner who was getting a rare first-line shift.
Leighton made 24 saves but couldn't stop Hossa at the right post on a rebound goal with 2:51 to play in the second and said he never saw Eager's wrist shot from the top of the right circle 28 seconds later. The puck went through defenseman Matt Carle
, over Leighton's catching glove and into the near corner.
"Obviously I saw it when it went through my D-man," Leighton said. "I'm not saying he's an Alex Ovechkin, but that is how he scores a lot of his goals; he drags it and then uses the 'D' as a screen."
The goal was Eager's first of the playoffs and only his second in 33 career postseason games. Ironically, his only other goal, vs. Vancouver on May 2, 2009, also was a game-winner.
"(I've) been working pretty hard this postseason. It was definitely a nice feeling to see that one go in," Eager said. "It was a big shift before us. 'Hoss' scored a big goal and really got the bench going. We got out there next and got a nice bounce."
Simon Gagne cut into Chicago's lead with a power-play goal 5:20 into the third period. His one-timer deflected off Brent Seabrook
and fluttered past Niemi. The Flyers put the pressure on for the rest of the period, but Niemi was simply too good.
After giving up five goals on 32 shots in Game 1 -- the second time he allowed five goals in a game in the playoffs -- Niemi came back with several sparkling glove and pad saves in Game 2 to preserve the win and get a huge ovation when it was done.
The opening of Niemi's walk-off interview with Comcast SportsNet was drowned out by the roaring crowd that was chanting his name. Niemi looked like he was in a state of shock.
"It's an unbelievable feeling how the people react to our game," he said.
It's just as unbelievable how he reacts to the situation.
Before the Hawks grabbed their 2-0 lead, Niemi flashed some serious leather with dazzling glove saves on Daniel Carcillo
, Mike Richards and Arron Asham all within five minutes in the second. He also stoned Richards on a breakaway earlier in the period.
"That one on Asham in the second period I thought was incredible," Madden said. "I was coming onto the ice and I saw Ash teeing it up. He got everything into that one and Niemi didn't flinch. It was a pretty serious save."
Niemi made 15 saves in the second and 14 more in the third after facing only three shots in the first period.
Gagne had a chance to make it 2-2 with 7:40 to play, but Niemi got his left pad across the crease in time to stop him at the right post. It was his 26th save of the night.
"I know he wasn't happy letting in five goals, but he played a great third period in Game 1 (six saves on six shots) and stood on his head today," Sharp said. "Philly had a lot of chances in the third and he was making great saves. He's a confident goalie back there."
Hossa had been playing with confidence and determination up front despite his eight-game goalless drought. When he scored you could almost see the tension fall off him.
Hossa pumped his fists low and then raised them up, looked to the rafters and let out a primal scream.
"It bugged me, definitely," Hossa said of his drought. "I tried not to get frustrated, but it's in your head, you know. I was waiting for some just garbage goal."
He got it, but the Flyers are partially to blame -- and, depending on how you look at it, perhaps coach Peter Laviolette deserves a hit, too.
Laviolette gambled by having his third defensive pair of Lukas Krajicek and Oskars Bartulis
on the ice against Hossa, Sharp and Troy Brouwer. While Brouwer was battling in front with Bartulis, Hossa beat Krajicek to the puck in order to score the goal. Sharp had the initial shot from the high slot.
"We have trust in all of our defensemen out there," Laviolette said. "We look to keep them away from certain people if we can, but our coverage was there. We had man-on-man."
On the very next shift, the Flyers turned the puck over in the neutral zone. Dustin Byfuglien found Eager and he cashed in. Niemi did the rest.
"His disposition is very laid back, very quiet, very unassuming," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said of the goalie. "You've got to commend his attitude and his preparation. At the same time, that's just the way he is."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Shift of the game: Patrick Sharp
, Jonathan Toews
, Marian Hossa
, Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson
were hemmed in the defensive zone for roughly 90 seconds after the Flyers pulled goalie Michael Leighton
for an extra skater late in the third period. Even though they were exhausted, the five Hawks were able to keep the shots mostly to the outside -- and Antti Niemi did the rest to preserve Chicago’s 2-1 lead during the 6-on-5 situation.