CHICAGO – Antti Niemi’s expression seldom changes and his demeanour is a constant. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s let in five goals, made a series of stellar saves or helped his team get within two wins of capturing the Stanley Cup.
The Chicago Blackhawks are just glad he’s in goal. The 26-year-old from Finland, who once drove a Zamboni to help pay the bills, is playing in his first NHL post-season and is seemingly not phased by where he’s landed.
“Maybe it’s better he has no experience,” teammate Ben Eager said. “We’re really confident when he’s in net.”
Niemi had 14 of his 32 saves in the final period Monday night, preserving the Blackhawks’ 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup finals.
The series shifts to the Wachovia Center for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Friday.
It was Niemi’s last-period performance that really brought the raucous crowd of 22,275 to its feet when the puck finally slid down the ice and the Flyers wouldn’t score in the final 1:44 after pulling goalie Michael Leighton for an extra attacker.
They chanted Niemi’s name and nearly drowned out an on-ice interview.
“It’s unbelievable feeling how the people react,” Niemi said. “Defence was the key.”
After a wild opener won by the Blackhawks 6-5 when Niemi did indeed give up five goals, the teams tightened up on defence and played a testy and chippy game.
Chicago broke a scoreless tie when Marian Hossa and Ben Eager scored 28 seconds apart late in the second period.
And after the Flyers got a power-play goal from Simon Gagne early in the third, Niemi withstood a furious late flurry from the Flyers to preserve Chicago’s seventh straight win.
“I don’t think we tested him very much,” Flyers right wing Danny Briere said. “I thought we made him look good with outside shots way too often. I thought he played well in the third period, but we didn’t create much traffic. We didn’t have many quality chances. We have to do a better job there.”
Niemi is 14-4 in the playoffs. Monday night’s win was one of his toughest, especially with the Flyers peppering him late.
And throughout these playoffs, he’s had ability to follow a bad game with a good one, just as he did in Game 2.
“It’s a great thing that it’s been that way. I want to keep it that way later, too,” he said. “But maybe it comes out of how I feel after the bad game or game allowing five or four goals. I don’t know how it happens.”
Patrick Sharp fired a shot from the left circle, and after Leighton stopped it and with Chicago’s Troy Brouwer battling for the puck, Hossa poked it in from the left side with 2:51 left in the second. Hossa, in his third straight Stanley Cup finals with a different team, got his third goal of the playoffs and first since May 5 against Vancouver in the conference semifinals.
“It bugged me definitely,” Hossa said of his goal drought. “I tried not to get frustrated but I was waiting for something. Like I said, a garbage goal.”
Just 28 seconds later with the crowd still abuzz, Dustin Byfuglien made a steal and passed the puck to fourth-liner Eager. Eager skated to the right circle and unleashed a shot that beat Leighton high on the glove side to make it 2-0.
It was the first goal of the playoffs for Eager, a former Flyers forward, who did some yapping with defenceman Chris Pronger after the game.
“I don’t speak that language, whatever he was speaking,” Pronger said.
“Nothing, really, Just a post-game chat, it was nothing,” Eager said. “He’s just been picking the pucks up after the game. Told him he could keep it.”
Philadelphia broke through with one second left on a power play when Gagne scored from the left circle.
Gagne nearly chipped in a tying rebound about seven minutes later, but was denied by Niemi’s pad in close.
Leighton, who was drafted by the Blackhawks and played parts of two seasons for them, got the nod despite being pulled in Game 1 after yielding five goals on 20 shots. He made 24 saves Monday.
“We played a great third period. Wedominated that period, and we have to carry it over back home,” Leighton said.
The Flyers are 7-1 at home in the playoffs—the same record the Blackhawks have on the road this post-season.
And history says the Blackhawks will be hard to overtake. The Stanley Cup finals record for home teams that sweep the first two games is 31-2.
But the Flyers have proved they can rally. They wouldn’t be where they are without one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history, overcoming a 3-0 deficit against Boston in the Eastern semifinals.
“The third period was all about us,” defenceman Kimmo Timonen said. “If we can keep playing that way for 60 minutes, we’re going to win games. Now we go home. We’ve got to make sure that we bring that extra gear.”