The tag line on this bad boy should've read "What if Niemi hadn't said no-no?" or
"What if Niemi played like a rookie?" Oh, NHL, such missed copywriting opportunities.
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In post-game interviews last night, Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg spoke about Antti Niemi's spectacular goaltending performance, stating, "He's been good for us all year. Everyone seemed to be doubting him except us. We're confident in him. We have to give him a lot more help than we did tonight."
It's not to say the Hawks had a bad game, as they certainly did not - they won, 2-1, and they did it in regulation, even ending the game down a man on a Sharks power play.
But there's little doubt that the hardest-working player on the ice that night was a modest Finnish goaltender who has quietly gone about his business - and his business has been to hold his team in the game, even when the team in front of him hasn't been playing their best. (If you doubt that, just look at some of the games vs. Nashville in round 1.)
Anybody who watches hockey with any regularity will tell you that goaltenders can "steal" games - games where the team in front of them is a mess, but they come out with the win, anyway. Or "steal" a game when the opposing team has been relentless, but the winning goalie was an absolute wall. Niemi has done both in the playoffs so far, silencing his doubters along the way.
To be fair, the doubters will never be 100% silenced unless the team hoists the prized silver chalice overhead come June. While obviously it matters - and matters a great deal - how the rest of the team is playing, blame will ultimately fall most mercilessly upon the shoulders of a losing goaltender. (Do you doubt that? Look at Roberto Luongo after his team lost to Chicago in round 2.)
Niemi has been painted as "typically" Finnish: hard-working, solid, modest, stoic. If that's typical, then it should be little surprise that Finland has become a "goalie factory", as those are the kind of personality traits you'd want in a goaltender. You don't want a goalie who is easily flustered, or cannot rebound from a scored goal or a bad game.
The Blackhawks keep talking about how Niemi inspires them to play harder in front of him, to take advantage of the opportunities that he gives them by locking down their goal. It is not simply Versteeg; it has been Jonathan Toews, team captain, and Patrick Sharp, alternative captain, who have been saying this, among others. Repeatedly, in interview after interview, the team keeps repeating their faith in the Finnish rookie, and their belief that he is getting the job done.
Yet the media keeps doubting, keeps questioning, keeps picking away at it, as if one of the team members is going to crack, and say, "Dang, you're right, what are we thinking?"
Time after time, the Blackhawks teammates keep firing right back at the media: Why are you doubting him so much when we clearly have expressed our confidence in him?
Niemi has certainly had his "rookie moments" in the playoffs; he got pulled in the first game of the second round; and he has had some occasional bad moments behind his net while playing the puck. But his team has kept those moments from becoming serious, game-altering moments.
And is he any worse, really, than the other remaining goalies left in the playoffs? Let's compare:
Leighton (Flyers) - 3 wins, 0 losses, 1 shutout. GAA - 1.12. SV% - .959, 98 SA.
Halak (Canadiens) - 8 wins, 6 losses, no shutouts. GAA - 2.63. SV% - .927, 464 SA
Niemi (Blackhawks) - 9 wins, 4 losses, 2 shutouts. GAA - 2.44. SV% - .918, 376 SA
Boucher (Flyers) - 6 wins, 4 losses, 1 shutout. GAA - 2.33. SV% - .915, 272 SA(now out w/injury)
Nabokov (Sharks) - 8 wins, 4 losses, 1 shutout. GAA - 2.40. SV% - .913, 321 SA
Price (Canadiens) - 0 wins, 1 loss, no shutouts. GAA - 3.56. SV% - .890, 73 SA
Leighton looks pretty amazing so far, but he's only played the last three games (1 vs MTL and 2 vs BOS). I'm not including Huet, as he only played one period and barely enough playoff stats to register.
If you sort by GAA, Niemi ends up middle of the pack. Save percentage, top 3, and that's with taking the second-highest shots-against total. Wins vs losses, he leads the pack with the most wins, and two shutouts to boot.
I will admit that I supported Niemi from the start of the season because he was a Finnish goaltender, being half-Finnish myself. I hadn't been too impressed with Huet last year, and here was the Blackhawks' first Finnish goaltender ever. (Finnish? Goalie? First of his kind for Chicago? Trifecta of awesome, as far as I'm concerned.)
Now everybody else is seeing in Niemi what the scouts saw: a diamond in the rough.
Niemi has quietly gone about his job, and gotten it done well. He posted seven shutouts (tying for third place league-wide) in the regular season, playing noticeably less games than any other goalie that had an equal or greater amount of shutouts. He has faced down fellow Finnish rookie sensation Pekka Rinne in round one, and he won out over Gold-medal winner Roberto Luongo in round two.
There is no reason to believe that this goalie, with this team, cannot lead this city to the sports trophy that Chicago and its faithful want so much.
The team believes.
The fans believe.
Seven wins to go.