Tuesday, May 4, 2010
In no rush
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- Antti Niemi admitted he had trouble sleeping after the Blackhawks' 5-1 defeat in Game 1 against Vancouver. Then he was allowed to finish his sentence.
"It's always tough to sleep right after games," he said, looking up at the clock Monday after the Hawks' 4-2 victory in Game 2. "It's already late, so it's going to take a few hours to get to sleep tonight."
When his teammates and coaches call the unflappable 26-year-old Finn "laid-back" and "even-keeled," they're not kidding. And it has obviously served him well during a sometimes up-and-down rookie season that has continued into the playoffs.
After sandwiching two shutouts around three four-goal games in the Hawks' first-round series against Nashville, Niemi has followed form against Vancouver. While this is not necessarily encouraging for the Blackhawks, it should be noted that he showed in Monday night's critical Game 2 victory that he also has the ability to regroup and rebound in the same game.
After allowing two goals just more than five minutes into the game, Niemi clamped down, finishing the game with 24 saves.
"It's not easy when you get scored on that early in the game," he said, "but I think you just want to see the puck and forget about the goals."
Antti Niemi doesn't send bolts of energy through the Hawks, but he does provide some solid goaltending.
His teammates, as always, were steadfastly behind him.
"He was great," said Patrick Sharp. "He kept us in it. We don't have any problems with Antti."
Does he inspire the same sense of security as Vancouver's Roberto Luongo? Canucks players spoke over the weekend about the confidence they have just from having Luongo behind them in net.
Of Luongo's big saves in Saturday's Game 1, Kyle Wellwood commented, "It seems to send a bolt of energy into our team when he's able to do that.
"It sends the message to the rest of the team that we can't let that happen again and we have to pick it up and play in the other end. And we almost always do. It happens a lot, and I'm glad it does."
Niemi does not yet appear to be at quite the stage to send bolts of energy into anyone. But like the Blackhawks as a whole, the good makes you want to hang in there during the bad, which is what coach Joel Quenneville did without reservation for Game 2 after pulling him in the third period of Game 1.
"That's a great thing [when] there's trust, but I think I have to remember it's not coming automatically, so you can't just rely on that," Niemi said. "You have the next game."
And so he hung in after the first two goals Monday night, shored up the rebound control problems from Saturday and came out the winner despite being clearly shaken from Game 1.
"For sure, even if you try not to think about the previous game, it's still in the back of your head," Niemi said. "It's not the best thing when you get pulled in a game."
With the painful learning experience, however, there also came valuable lessons simply from playing across the ice from an accomplished goalie like Luongo, who's playing at the top of his game.
"You don't want to focus on that too much because it can also be a negative thing, but of course when you play against great goalies who are playing well, you have to step up yourself too," he said.
Niemi's seven shutouts during the regular season tied for third in the NHL, despite the fact he started in just 35 games. But in eight other games, he also allowed four goals or more.
"He's been great all year," said Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell. "I don't think enough people give him credit. He's been one of the most consistent players we've had."
Niemi said the trick -- if there is one -- to rebounding from a bad game is to "keep focus." Brent Sopel said the Hawks' goalie accomplishes this by "not wrapping himself too tight."
You'd hope not after hearing about Niemi recently talking about his six-month mandatory tour of duty as an 18-year-old with the Finnish army, where he drove a truck and was trained to shoot at planes from a cannon.
"We really didn't shoot it," he said. "But we were trained to shoot it."
Now, that's laid-back.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.