CHICAGO – Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Chicago’s Antti Niemi share a homeland. On Friday night, the two Finnish goaltenders will have something else in common when they make their debuts in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The six-foot-five Rinne went 32-16-5 this season and hopes to use his big frame to block the net for the seventh-seeded Predators.
Niemi, a 26-year-old rookie, took over late in the season as the Blackhawks’ top goalie, starting the final nine games. He had a six-game winning streak before Chicago lost in overtime to Detroit in the season finale Sunday, knocking the Blackhawks into the second slot in the Western Conference.
With goaltending one of the biggest questions for the talented Blackhawks this season, Niemi supplanted Cristobal Huet as the starter and finished the season 26-7-4.
Niemi and Rinne each had seven shutouts.
“Both teams got young goalies and the comparisons are pretty accurate, very similar in a lot of ways,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.
Chicago won the season series 4-2 but the teams haven’t played since Dec. 27. The 27-year-old Rinne was 1-2 against the Blackhawks in the regular season, though he posted a shutout Oct. 29 in Nashville.
Niemi, who is six foot two, was 1-0 against the Predators with a 5-4 win with Dan Ellis in goal for Nashville. Niemi said he doesn’t know Rinne well but did face him a couple of times in Finnish league play. Rinne is from Kempele, Finland, and Niemi is from Vantaa.
“I never really talked with him. I played against him back home a couple of times a long time ago,” Niemi said. “I don’t know him too much, but he’s a good goalie.”
Since the Olympic break, Rinne is 12-4-1 with a 2.03 GAA and .928 save percentage. He also had four shutouts in that span.
The question about both Rinne and Niemi is how they handle the pressure of the post-season, where the crowd is louder, the lights brighter and the play much more physical. Both teams will be trying to create traffic and congestion in front of the net to screen the opposing goalie and set up rebound chances.
“It’s the same thing. It’s just trying to stop the puck and keep it simple,” Rinne said. “I mean everybody’s always asking what I’m going to change for the playoff. I think there’s not too many things I want to change. . . . I think I gained some confidence, I want to keep going and just kind of prepare the same way I’ve been doing so far.”
Huet, who was a backup to Nikolai Khabibulin a year ago when the Blackhawks reached the Western Conference finals, couldn’t keep the No. 1 job this year, and when Niemi got his chance, he seized it.
“I don’t know if there was a defining moment,” Quenneville said. “We just kept alternating goaltenders for a stretch there and he took advantage of playing in consecutive games.”
Niemi’s teammates, many of whom got into the playoffs for the first time a year ago, aren’t worried about his lack of post-season experience.
“He’s been great for us. It’s not a concern at all,” said Chicago star Jonathan Toews. “A lot of us were in that situation last year. We enjoyed it and made the best of it. It’s going to be new for him, but we got a lot of experience in this locker room.”
And, of course, the Predators feel the same way about their guy in net.
“The way he finished the season, just the mindset for the playoffs, we have no doubt about that. We feel so confident in our goaltending situation. We know Pekka is going to do the job,” said Nashville right-winger J.P. Dumont.
Niemi appreciates his progress after signing a free agent contract with the Blackhawks less than two years ago. He spent most of last season in the AHL. Now he’s being counted on by a young, talented offensive team in search of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1961.
The Blackhawks can’t have a goaltender letdown against a team as solid as the Predators .
“Before the season I didn’t see this coming, but for some time I’ve known it is possible. It has come real fast,” Niemi said. “Overall the biggest thing is getting games and getting more confident. I think that’s the biggest deal.”
Nerves right now are not so bad, Niemi said. But as Friday’s opener nears?
“I think I’m going to be able to sleep,” he said.
AP sports writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.