Hawk Talk: Antti answers the call

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Hawk Talk: Antti answers the call

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
11:39 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

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.

Blackhawks: Abbott happy to be back after season in Sweden

Blackhawks: Abbott happy to be back after season in Sweden

Spencer Abbott enjoyed his short stint in Rockford, which came after he was acquired by the Blackhawks in February 2015. At the time, he thought staying here was his most likely plan.

Then he got an offer Frölunda in Sweden.

“I thought, ‘why not give it a shot? Maybe it’ll be a good experience and bring it back with me,’” said Abbott on Monday. “It was worth it, for sure. I have no regrets.”

Abbott, who’s back with the Blackhawks, had never been to Europe prior to getting that Frölunda offer. But his first trip across the pond was a good one as Abbott was part of Frölunda’s run to its Swedish and Champions hockey league titles. Abbott had 14 goals and 21 assists in 51 regular-season games. Abbott got plenty out of the games, but not nearly as much as he did in the team’s training camp.

“The first month and a half you’re over there, you’re there from 8 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.] every day. I think over here there’s a rule against being here for more than 3-4 hours, but not over there. It’s like a 9-5 job for a month and a half, a lot of working out, a lot of bike riding. So for me, that was good because I had never been in that kind of shape before,” said Abbott, who added he’s trying to incorporate some of that into his routine here. “Training camps here are hard but they’re just different over there. There’s a lot of ice, bigger ice [overseas], so they really condition you. So my conditioning may be a bit better.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]​

As much as Abbott loved his time in Sweden, he ultimately wanted to be back in the NHL. So when the Blackhawks offered him a one-year deal, he jumped at it. He’s gotten off to a good start this training camp, scoring a few goals in the team’s early scrimmages.

“I wasn’t sure how it would play out, to be honest. I’m 28 and pretty early in the summer they were showing interest,” Abbott said. “This is one for the places I really wanted to come, because I did l really like the organization when I was here for that brief period of time. Now I get the full effect as long as they’ll have me. It’s such a good organization.”

Abbott probably could have kept playing overseas but he wanted another chance in the NHL. He’s happy it’s once again coming in the Blackhawks’ organization.

“It’s overwhelming. There are so many places to play hockey nowadays in Europe. There are tons of leagues over there. But it didn’t interest me,” he said. “I wanted to come back and give it one more shot.”

Blackhawks: Keith unlikely to play first four preseason games

Blackhawks: Keith unlikely to play first four preseason games

Duncan Keith was already deemed unlikely to play in many, if any, Blackhawks preseason games, when training camp opened. As of now, it doesn’t look like he’ll be in the first few.

Keith will probably not play in the Blackhawks’ first four preseason games, assistant coach Kevin Dineen said following Monday’s training camp sessions. As for whether or not Keith will play in any, that’s still up in the air.

“That’s a question that Dunc and the medical staff, Stan [Bowman], Joel [Quenneville], we’ll all get to that. I wouldn’t foresee him certainly in these first four games. I would say that’s not going to happen,” Dineen said. “We’ll let him keep progressing on his timetable that he’s on now.”

Keith has been participating in one practice each day but has not been in any of the scrimmages. Assistant coach Mike Kitchen said Keith has asked to skate in the team’s second practice each day – each session is about 20-25 minutes – but the Blackhawks have told him no. As of now, both Dineen and Kitchen figure Keith will be ready for the regular-season opener but the Blackhawks will continue to be prudent with him.

“He’s out there wheeling around, doing well,” Dineen said. “We had a good chat with him today. He feels like he has a lot of jump but not a lot of stamina right now. We’ll continue the way we’ve handled it so far. We’ll keep moving forward that way.”

Players returning soon

Patrick Kane, who was at the United Center on Monday afternoon, will skate with the Blackhawks on Tuesday. Defenseman Michal Kempny will also join Tuesday’s sessions. Dineen said Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin are expected to join the Blackhawks on Friday.

Neither Kane nor Kempny are expected to play Wednesday vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]​

Pokka is back

Defenseman Ville Pokka, who played for Team Finland in the World Cup of Hockey, skated with the Blackhawks on Monday.

“Anybody coming back from Toronto over the last two weeks is going to have a heck of a lot of confidence,” Dineen said. “A young kid like that getting the chance to represent his country on the international stage is a great honor and a pick-me-up heading into training camp and the season.”

First cuts made

The Blackhawks made their first round of cuts on Monday, sending Radovan Bondra, John Dahlstrom, Nathan Noel and Roy Radke to their respective junior teams. The active roster is now at 57 players.