Antti Niemi making the most of his chances with Blackhawks
A little more than a year ago, goalie Antti Niemi and the Rockford IceHogs were bounced out of the first round of the AHL playoffs with four straight losses to the Milwaukee Admirals.
Back then, even Niemi wondered what his hockey future may hold.
On Sunday, Niemi and the Chicago Blackhawks rallied from two goals down to eliminate the San Jose Sharks from the NHL Western Conference finals, and the team advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1992.
And through those first three rounds, many consider Niemi the team’s MVP.
What a difference a year can make.
“I would have never guessed I’d be here. Back then, it just didn’t seem possible,” Niemi said just minutes after shutting out the potent Sharks in the final two periods to spark the ’Hawks victory. “I guess you could say I’ve made it pretty far from that point.”
Niemi gave up four even-strength goals in a 4-1 loss to Milwaukee on April 21, 2009, in his final game with the IceHogs. He emptied his MetroCentre locker after going 0-2 in the playoffs and spending much of the season as the No. 2 goalie behind Corey Crawford.
However, he surprisingly never returned.
A preseason competition between Niemi and Crawford appeared to be for the Blackhawks backup goaltender position, and the 26-year-old from Finland got the nod. When Chicago’s free-agent acquisition of Cristobal Huet turned sour, Niemi started to get his chances.
He made the best of them, especially in the postseason.
While Huet went 27-14 with a 2.50 goals-against average in 48 regular-season games, Niemi built a 26-7 mark with a 2.25 GAA. He earned the top spot between the pipes late in the year, and has not given Huet a chance to get back on the ice.
He stopped 44 shots in a Game 1 win over San Jose, and again tied a career-playoff high with 44 saves in a Game 3 overtime win. On Sunday, he made just 16 saves on 18 shots on goal, but a couple came in spectacular fashion, including a flurry of stops midway through the third period that kept Chicago in the game.
His boss believes his attitude has been a key to his yearlong rise.
“I’ve got to commend him on how well he’s handled the situation. I think the one thing that makes him just keep moving on is he’s a very relaxed guy and he’s very comfortable out there with how he approaches the games,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. “He just moves ahead to the next shot, and that attitude helps facilitate the focus that good goaltenders bring at this time of year. He goes about it like ‘Hey, I’m going to stop the next puck and do my job.’ ”
Though he has been solid, Niemi and his teammates realize that his job is not over yet.
“Niemi has been big for us all season; I’m not surprised with what he’s done in the playoffs,” said Kris Versteeg, also a former IceHog who has stepped up his play in the playoffs. “But he’s got one more thing to do.”
Jay Taft can be reached at 815-987-1384 or email@example.com.