Niemi quiets critics with shutout
CHICAGO -- Antti Niemi probably doesn't listen to talk radio or read much local hockey coverage, but the unflappable Finn certainly took a big step toward quieting his critics Sunday.
In his second career playoff start, the 26-year-old rookie stopped all 23 shots he faced in a 2-0, series-tying win over Nashville. No soft goals, no weird bounces, no excuses. Just the first Blackhawks shutout in the playoffs since Ed Belfour did it in 1996.
"He proved himself," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "I think from now on, he can go out there and relax, just like the rest of us."
The Hawks' failure to get a goaltender at the trade deadline caused consternation among the fans desperate to see this team make it to the Stanley Cup finals, but Niemi looked like a championship-caliber goalie, making a few dynamic saves and controlling the rebounds. After a good start, he finished strong, stopping 11 shots in the third period.
"Look at the way he played tonight," said Patrick Kane, who gave Niemi some cushion with a third-period goal. "He made so many crucial saves and so many saves with traffic in front of him, he just blocked them out.
"It's good to see that out of him. He's been playing that way all year. He comes in as a rookie and you don't really know what to expect out of him. He's really turned things up here, especially tonight. He was awesome."
Niemi is known for his low-key, and low-maintenance, personality. When someone asked him how he felt about recording a shutout in his first playoff win, he seemed nonplussed by the attention.
"Obviously, it's great," he said. "It doesn't really matter what we win by. But of course, it's great and it tells how well the team played, how they sacrificed."
Niemi was victimized by a weird bounce in the first game, when J.P. Dumont's wobbly cross-ice shot slipped past his arm and in for the tying goal. He took the blame Saturday, noting he was too deep to play the puck correctly. Nashville took the lead nine minutes later off a Troy Brouwer turnover at the Hawks' blue line.
Did Niemi dwell in his misfortune?
"I thought about it for an evening, after the game," he said. "I didn't want to think about it [Saturday] at all."
This time, he made his presence known three minutes into the second period, when he deflected a Jerred Smithson shot. And when it looked like Dustin Boyd would have an open net on the rebound, Niemi kicked his right leg out for the save. A goal would've given Nashville the lead and quieted the sellout crowd. Instead it revved it up.
"It came pretty fast, a quick shot, I just wanted to get the ice covered first, and then think about the rebound," he said.
Nashville came out strong early in the second, but the Hawks' defense locked down and the Predators were hit with three second-period penalties. Dave Bolland scored a power-play goal to put Chicago up 1-0, and Kane's nifty goal seemed to relieve the tension from the 22,000-plus in the building.
Niemi went a long time without facing a shot on goal, which is good and bad. Good for obvious reasons and bad because it's easy to lose focus.
"You don't want to be thinking about that, like I'm not getting shots," Niemi said. "You just want to focus on the game. But it didn't feel too bad today."
The defense played an inspired game, and the forwards' backchecking saved some opportunities as well. The Predators had 10 minutes of 5-on-4 advantage and missed all five shots on goal.
"Our penalty kill was great, not just the defense," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "We had smart positioning and they blocked key shots. Our defense, as a core, was solid and Antti complemented them in a key way. I thought no matter who was on the ice, they were willing to get in the lane to block shots."
For a team with championship dreams in a city known for disappointing endings, the Game 1 loss was disheartening for the burgeoning Blackhawks fan base. But Niemi, with some assistance, helped bring everything back to an even keel with a trip to Nashville coming up.
"I think Antti came off a game we were all disappointed in," Quenneville said. "It was a nice response by him, and basically we're happy with the response across the board."