All in a day's work
Blackhawks' Niemi keeps delivering victories, if not great insight on his success
CHICAGO -- When someone asks Antti Niemi about himself, he looks puzzled. And it's not just that something gets lost in translation. I think Niemi understands the questions that come his way; he's just not sure why you're asking him about him. He's the Antti-Burish. He deflects pucks, questions, attention.
It's almost as if he's a mailman getting interviewed after a good delivery.
"So Antti, tell me how you fit three magazines in one tiny mail slot?"
There's simply not a lot of room for deliberation when talking about his profession.
Antti is a goaltender. Antti tries to make saves. It's really that simple. It's what he does.
If the question coming into the playoffs was Niemi's readiness to play in the Stanley Cup finals, that question has been answered. On Monday night, the quiet guy added an exclamation point. Niemi stopped 32 of 33 shots in the Blackhawks' 2-1 win over Philadelphia to take a 2-0 lead in the finals, with the series moving to Philadelphia.
Here's a conversation he's probably not prepared for: being considered for the Conn Smythe Trophy. It's a possibility, especially with how quiet Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been in these first two games.
But forget that for now. No one is worried whether Niemi is a playoff goalie now.
"The further we go, the more questions that pop up on him; if he can be reliable," Patrick Sharp said. "And he keeps answering the critics. So we're proud of him. We know he plays his best on the big stage, and he answered all those Game 1 questions with tonight's great effort."
Even after he won the goaltending battle with Cristobal Huet late in the season, no one could have known whether Niemi was the consummate playoff goalie, because he had never started a playoff game. Heck, he started only 35 games this season. He lost five times in March (including two in overtime) before winning six in a row. But he also had three shutouts in that span.
In the first round, he rebounded from losses with shutouts against the Predators. He stopped all 33 shots he faced in Game 4 of that series to tie the series. He gave up five goals in the opener of the second round but came back with two great wins. And after giving up a combined seven goals in a win and a loss to Vancouver, he gave up eight total in five straight wins, closing out the Canucks and sweeping San Jose.
And now, after giving up five goals in the Hawks' 6-5 win over Philadelphia to open the finals, he all but shut down the Flyers. How does he do it? It's a takeoff on that old joke: How do you get to the Stanley Cup finals? Practice.
"He just shows up to play every night and works real hard in practice," said Ben Eager, who scored the winning goal. "He doesn't like it when any pucks get by him [in practice]. We're real confident when he's in net, and he played another great game for us, especially in the third period."
Niemi doesn't have any answers, either, although hit upon an important note on the "Fabulous Finn": He has a high sense of self-esteem and lofty expectations for his own performance.
"It's hard to say, but it's a great thing that it's been that way," he said of his penchant for rebound games. "I want to keep it that way. Maybe it comes out of how I feel out of a bad game or a game allowing four or five goals. I don't know how it happens."
It doesn't matter whether Niemi can explain. His play does the talking for him. Coach Joel Quenneville has said in the past that Niemi is low maintenance, especially compared to the rest of his ilk.
"That's the way he is," Quenneville said after this game. "His disposition is very laid back, very quiet, very unassuming guy, and he just moves forward. I think he just looks ahead and looks 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."
One of the worries about Niemi (and Huet when he was in the conversation) was the paucity of shots Hawks goalies faced during the regular season. Often that number was in the low 20s. Niemi has faced 30 or more shots nine times in the playoffs, and the Hawks have won eight.
The Flyers had only three shots in the first period but 15 in each of the next two. Simon Gagne scored on a deflection right in front of the net 5:20 into the third period, but Niemi made scores of big-time saves, from catching pucks out of midair to his usual butterfly maneuvers. He also got some lucky bounces. Who doesn't?
Niemi credited his defensemen, and they were demonstrably tighter than in Game 1, thus proving the theory: It takes a village to raise a goaltender.
"I thought Antti made some nice saves," Duncan Keith said. "He took up a lot of the net. We did a good job clearing the pucks out, so they couldn't get many rebounds. We did a lot of things better than we did last game as far as managing the puck and being better positioned defensively."
In six weeks, Niemi has gone from talk radio fodder to the recipient of joyous hosannas from the deliriously happy United Center crowd.
"Ni-em-i! Ni-em-i!" is the new "De-troit Sucks!"
"It's an unbelievable feeling how the people react to our game," Niemi said.
In 1961, the Hawks needed Glenn Hall to "stand on his head" to finish Montreal in the semifinals of the playoffs. Hall shut out the defending champions twice in the last two games of the six-game series.
Beating the Canadiens gave those Hawks all the confidence in the world to go on and beat Detroit and win the organization's last championship.
"That's when I knew we would win the Stanley Cup," Bobby Hull told me last week. He was the one who said Hall stood on his head to shut out Rocket Richard's Habs.
Like Hall, Niemi had his best series in the semis. Twice against San Jose he made 44 saves, including a 3-2 overtime win in Game 3.
Unlike Niemi, Hall was famous for throwing up before games, calling his job "a winter of torture."
Niemi doesn't look tortured. He looks like he's doing something he loves but can't always explain in clichés and sound bites. He looks like he's at home in the Hawks' net. And sometimes he's comfortable in front of a microphone.
"It's always a little bit about the luck, too," he said of the difference between the first two games. "How you see the puck and how it bounces."
Niemi didn't need to reinvent his position to put the Hawks in the position to win the Stanley Cup. He just needed to be himself. Sometimes that's just how this thing bounces.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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