Wednesday, May 26, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
CHICAGO Its easy to envision a future Deadspin lead story, one about an ascendant superstar goalie who sneaks up on the NHL and sets it on its ear, all the while never informing his parents or friends in Finland how hes finding his fortune in the United States.
As ludicrous as it sounds, Antti Niemiand apparently, his friends and familyis so even-keeled, such a story might just be true, and that for all anyone knows back home, hes simply found consistent work as a house painter or electrician and isnt a young man four wins from backstopping his way to a Stanley Cup, and turning the longest Cup drought in the NHLs books today soaking wet.
No, Im not really talking to anybody in Finland, Niemi said. My friends dont really want to mess me up, they want to keep me focused. Even my parents, we just talk about regular things, not hockey.
While this may stun those of us who would be sneaking excited phone calls or texts from the dressing room during intermissions during such a stellar playoff run, Niemi seems to have found the antidote to anxiety. Hes the coolest customer in the dressing room who just happens to man the most nerve-wracking position.
I just move on to the next thing, good or bad, Niemi said. A goal, I focus about the next puck. A save, I focus on the next puck. A win, I focus on the next game.
Maybe some of it has to do with Niemis expectations for the season. Back in September, there were none. I was just trying to make the team, he said of his battle for the backup role with the preordained No. 2, Corey Crawford.
His teammates didnt exactly welcome himhe was mostly an unknown, after all. His halting English didnt make matters much easier, although veteran netminder Cristobal Huet, himself a non-native English speaker, made life easier for the young backstop. He formed a fast bond with a fellow young Scandinavian player, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Niemi tossed a shutout in his first start of the season, the Blackhawks second game of the year, in front of his home fans in Helsinki (the netminders hometown of Vantaa is a suburb of the Finnish capital). Every time out, if he wasnt getting better, he was certainly proving himself an NHL-caliber goalie.
He just kept putting great performances in the books for us, Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. Through a variety of challenges, he came out looking good.
All year, Anttis had our backs, Chicago center Dave Bolland said. We know hes going to take care of us.
In reality, the starting job was never Niemis to win, but Huets to lose. As the veteran struggled, treading water all season, Niemi continued to grow and learnand occasionally put on a mind-boggling performance, like his 1-0 shutout in Vancouver over the Canucks on Nov. 22, a 2-1 overtime win in Pittsburgh vs. the Penguins on Dec. 5, or a 4-3 shootout win in Detroit to upend the Red Wings on Jan. 21.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has described Niemi in a number of colorful and awestruck ways, the best of which is the strangely appropriate laid-backish. The mentor has consistently praised the rookies demeanor, and unflappability.
His presence has been key for us, Quenneville said. Hes done pretty much whatever weve asked of him. His consistency, his ability to repeat success and eliminate mistakes, has contributed to his confidence and we on the team benefit from that.
Interestingly, the least experienced player on the active roster is one of the most calm and confident, even as the games increase in tension and payoff.
I am feeling more confident than ever, Niemi admits, with some goading. But that is the sort of thing that I put away, right away.
The budding star has also admitted during this playoff run that hes aware hes becoming an elite NHL goaltender. But again, such thoughts are stored away. Ill think about that in the summer, he said. Until then, it doesnt matter anyway.
One of the simple gifts of this storied Chicago season has been watching this backstop blossom, slowly gaining confidence, both on the ice and in dressing room interviews. Seeing him chat with a reporter in his native tongue while in Vancouver, this reticent and stoic player suddenly grinning widely and gesturing in all manner of Jimmie Walker and John Belushi, was revelatory.
The young fella is no different from any of us, aside from making his living off of beating back rubber slabs shot his way at upwards of 100 mph, and bringing a little Clint Eastwood braggadocio to the ice as he flips the pucks back at the offense as if to ask if thats all its got.
Its rare that the unflappable Finn flops on the ice, and barely more so hell even admit to any tension. Those times, you have to bronze and store away, like when Niemi talks about how hard it is, win or lose, to get to sleep after a game, replaying it over in his mind. Likewise when he admitted that Game 3s overtime period vs. the San Jose Sharks was so tense I didnt even realize right away the game was over after Dustin Byfugliens game-winner, or that after Big Buffs eventual game-winner in Game 4 Niemi couldnt even recall how much time was left on the clock (10 minutes? Three minutes? I cannot even remember, but I was hoping the clock would go much faster.).
There are even those moments of awe, where you wonder whether any of this has sunk in on Niemi, who admitted in full candor that Ive dreamed of the Stanley Cup since I was seven, but that dream seemed too far away to even be a dream.
Well, Niemi is certainly living that dream today. And, Mr. or Mrs. Niemi back in Vantaa, if youre reading, your son isnt a successful plumber or painter herehes manning the pads and saying NO! to the best Blackhawks opponents the NHL has to offer.
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.