Keeping Niemi is Bowman's best call yet
CHICAGO -- It was the first day of October, the eve of the NHL regular season for the Chicago Blackhawks in Helsinki, Finland, and GM Stan Bowman was grappling with a tough roster decision.
Bowman had to put one on waivers with the purpose of sending the goalie to the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate in Rockford, Ill. Only one of the youngsters could back up Cristobal Huet. Bowman chose to keep Niemi, a decision has turned out to be arguably the biggest of his tenure as GM, and a superb one.
Niemi was the difference in Chicago's 2-1 win over Philadelphia in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday. His 32-save performance led the Hawks to their seventh straight win. To think that nearly eight months to the day earlier in Helsinki, Bowman and his staff had debated long and hard between Niemi and Crawford.
"We talked internally about it being a tough decision. They both had played well; it was close," Bowman told ESPN.com after Monday night's game. "But the one thing we all talked about is that Antti had the potential to be a star. You didn't know how he would take it when he was given the opportunity. But he had that you know, some guys could be good goalies and some guys have the chance to be great goalies. I think we saw that in him. We thought if we gave him that opportunity, he might become what we had hoped. And sure enough, he's exceeded that."
No kidding. The 26-year-old goalie now sports a 2.40 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage in the playoffs. On Monday, he bounced back from allowing five goals in Game 1 to record his 14th win of the postseason, two away from magical No. 16.
We asked Niemi to compare his growth and confidence level from that nervous day on the eve of the season in Helsinki, when he didn't know whether he'd make the team, to his journey eight months later that sees him two wins away from a Stanley Cup.
"Well, it's like night and day," Niemi said. "It's a huge difference, and I think that's the biggest reason why I can play this well right now."
Along the way, he's made believers of himself and his teammates, taking over from Huet and never looking back.
"He's been fighting all year, proving himself all season long," said Hawks center Patrick Sharp, who assisted on Marian Hossa's opening goal Monday night. "It seems like the further we go, the more questions that pop up about him and whether he's going to be reliable. He keeps answering the critics. We're proud of him. He plays his best on the big stage."
By now, there should no longer be any Niemi doubters. Some of the Eastern media that didn't see enough of him heading into the Cup finals murmured some doubts after his Game 1 performance. Those of us who have spent the playoffs in the Western Conference knew better. Niemi outplayed Roberto Luongo in the second round and stonewalled a powerful offensive attack from the San Jose Sharks in the conference finals while turning in two 44-save performances. And on Monday night, he did what he always does after a tough outing -- he played brilliantly.
"He's the reason we won tonight," Sharp said.
His postseason play has allowed his teammates to relax in front of him and play their game. Veteran center John Madden had that feeling for many years in New Jersey with the NHL's all-time winningest goalie, Martin Brodeur.
"It's a great feeling," Madden said. "You need that in order to get this far in the playoffs. We needed Niemi to play that way in these playoffs. He's done it so far; he's been great and I don't see him letting up at all."
Niemi is a rookie, but he's no kid. That was another key decision by the Hawks' front office -- to park the goalie in the AHL last season after he came over from Finland and not rush him.
"The one thing with the European guys is that the rink is a different size," Bowman said. "We wanted to get him acclimated to North America -- smaller rinks, different angles. To just jump into the NHL right away is tough for those guys. We figured there was no reason to rush him."
What's becoming evident with Niemi is that he has that quality you see in star goaltenders: the ability to be clutch when it matters most. Even after allowing five goals in Game 1, he shut down the door in the third period. On Monday night, when the Flyers buzzed in the third, including a point-blank chance from Simon Gagne late in the game, Niemi looked cool and collected and firmly in control.
"I thought their goaltender played extremely well in the third period," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, whose team outshot Chicago 15-4 in the third. "We had more than enough chances to tie up that game and opportunities to get out of it. It didn't happen."
The only downside to Niemi's emergence? It just so happens he's a restricted free agent July 1 on a team that already has tough salary-cap decisions to make this summer. Not that the Hawks could care one bit at this hour.>
"Look, two more wins is all we care about right now," Bowman said with a smile.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.