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
"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
"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
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."