Niemi an unlikely hero for Hawks

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The Blackhawks' Antti Niemi , making a save against the Sharks, is 12-4 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average in the playoffs.

CHICAGO - Some people know Antti Niemi as the Chicago Blackhawks' 26-year-old rookie. Others, especially back home in Finland, might remember him as the player who drove a Zamboni to make extra money.

But to the Flyers, he's the goaltender who could stand in the way of their first Stanley Cup since 1975.

The Blackhawks goalie is playing like a playoff veteran rather than a rookie in his first postseason. And Blackhawks fans certainly hope his work in the crease will lead the Hawks, one the NHL's Original Six franchises, to their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

"They seem very destined right now," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said after the Blackhawks swept his team out of the playoffs on Sunday. "They have a goaltender that's on fire."

In the postseason, Niemi (pronounced Nee-em-ee) is 12-4, has two shutouts, a .921 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average. He earned those numbers by recording 430 saves while allowing just 37 goals.

Of all those saves, many of them in the clutch, 116 were made as the Hawks swept the San Jose Sharks in four games in the Western Conference finals. Niemi allowed just seven goals in those games.

The Sharks, however, noted after their Game 4 loss that all seven of those goals were scored above Niemi's waist.

"Sometimes when your goaltender is making those big saves, making the kind of plays that he is at critical times in the game, it really changes the whole dynamic of the game," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said.

"If you haven't figured out he's a great goaltender by now, you're not watching the games," winger Patrick Sharp said. "He's been rock solid."

Few predicted such praise would be heaped on Niemi. As a teenager, the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder played minor-league hockey outside Helsinki only to give himself something to do while awaiting a mandatory six-month service in the Finnish army.

It was then, as a goalie on a second-division team in Finland, that Niemi drove a Zamboni to earn some spending money. After he resurfaced the ice, he'd dash back into the locker room to change into his uniform.

Three seasons ago, the Blackhawks spotted the gangly backup goalie playing for the Pelicans in Finland's top league. Taking a chance, then-Hawks general manager Dale Tallon signed Niemi as a free agent on May 5, 2008.

"Obviously, it has been a great, great experience so far," Niemi said of the Blackhawks' blasting through the postseason. "It's pretty huge for coming into the season [as an unknown] and being at this point now."

After spending most of last season with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League, he won what was expected to be the job as Chicago's backup to Cristobal Huet.

He impressed when he got the chance to play.

"As time went along here during the season, he kept getting the odd game in," Keith said. "Every time he played, it seemed like he was getting a shutout. Or if he didn't get a shutout, he'd have about 40 saves and let in two goals."

And with each opportunity and its ensuing success, Niemi's confidence grew.

"It gave the mental toughness to be able to be on top of your game every night," he said.

Eventually, after both the Blackhawks and Huet faltered, Niemi took over for good in mid-March. In 39 games, he went 26-7 with a 2.25 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. He ranked third in the NHL with seven shutouts.

"He's proved a lot of people wrong," center Jonathan Toews said. "But he's exceeding even our expectations."

Niemi first showed signs of extraordinary ability during the 2008-09 preseason. In his first exhibition game at Dallas, he withstood three five-on-three power plays.

"I remember thinking back then, 'This guy is a pretty good goaltender,' " Keith said. "I don't know where we found him. There was no hype about him."

There is plenty of hype around the goalie now, but little of it comes from him. Calm and collected, Niemi isn't caught up with his performances, nor is he giddy about being four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Even on Sunday, moments after the Hawks beat the Sharks to clinch the conference title, Niemi showed little emotion at his locker.

"Well, you got to commend him, how well he's handled the situation," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's a very relaxed guy, very comfortable, confident as he approaches the game. . . . He just goes about it like, 'Hey, I'm just trying to stop the next puck and do my job.' "


Contact staff writer Keith Pompey at 610-313-8029 or kpompey@phillynews.com.