Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The consensus among hockey experts is that the Chicago Blackhawks' biggest weakness is in net, but so far in the Stanley Cup Finals, Antti Niemi has not cooperated with that assessment.
Niemi almost single-handedly kept the Philadelphia Flyers from tying the best-of-seven series at one game apiece Monday night, saving his best goaltending for when his team needed it most.
Despite getting thoroughly outplayed in the final 20 minutes of Game 2, the Blackhawks were able to hold on for a 2-1 victory. Niemi was the biggest reason for the close victory, as he made 32 saves on the night and stopped 14-of-15 shots in the third period.
So far, Niemi has owned the third period in the Stanley Cup Finals, and his team is taking a 2-0 lead to Philadelphia as a result. After giving up five goals in the first 40 minutes of Saturday's wild Game 1, the Finnish netminder shut the door by stopping all six shots he faced in the third period to help Chicago take that game by a 6-5 count.
While he was solid in the third period of Game 1, Niemi's performance on Monday night was nothing short of game-saving.
Chicago had grabbed a 2-0 lead on a pair of quick goals by Marian Hossa and Ben Eager late in the second period. But, the Flyers' Simon Gagne scored on the power play 5:20 into the third period and Philadelphia continued to dominate the remainder of the game. When Chicago's skaters weren't able to block shots in front of Niemi, the goaltender was always there to deny the tying goal.
"I think our "D" played maybe a little bit better in front of the net in blocking shots and letting me see the puck," said Niemi after Game 2. "But it's always a little bit about the luck, too, how you see the puck, and how it bounces."
So far, Antti Niemi has owned the third period in the Stanley Cup Finals.
One thing we always hear about Niemi is his ability to stay on an even keel. He has the ability to never get too high after a strong game or too low after a sub-par performance, like the one in the series opener that had folks questioning his ability yet again.
Through this whirlwind of a season, Niemi has displayed a quiet confidence that is obviously serving him well on hockey's biggest stage.
It also served him well back in September when Niemi outplayed Corey Crawford for the right to begin the season as Cristobal Huet's backup. Of course, Niemi would eventually supplant Huet as the starter, but he has never taken his promotion for granted.
An undrafted free agent signed by Chicago in 2008, Niemi had played in just three NHL games prior to the 2009-10 campaign and none of those were playoff contests. In fact, if the 26-year-old was born about two weeks later he would have been considered a rookie this season.
"Maybe that's better he's had no experience," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said of Niemi after Game 2. "He just shows up to play every night. He works real hard in practice. He doesn't like any pucks getting by him. We're real confident when he's in net."
Niemi is quickly becoming a legend in Chicago, where the hockey fans haven't celebrated a Stanley Cup title since 1961. If he continues to play the way he did on Monday night, the Blackhawks will be lifting the most famous trophy in sports soon enough.
FLYERS LOOKING FOR HELP AT HOME
While Niemi was able to thwart Philadelphia's comeback chances in Games 1 and 2 in Chicago, the Flyers are hoping to get back in the series with the next two games on home ice.
Of course, Philadelphia joined a select group earlier this postseason when it came back from a 3-0 series deficit to oust Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals, so rallying from two games down shouldn't seem like too daunting of a task for the Flyers.
As good as Niemi was in Game 2, the Flyers are still feeling confident after dominating the third period on Monday.
"It's just a bounce here or there. Unfortunately, they're getting them right now," said Flyers captain Mike Richards. "But we have to work harder to create some for ourselves."
Philly's play at home in this postseason should be a source of hope for the Flyers. The Orange and Black is 7-1 at the Wachovia Center in the playoffs.
"Obviously, not the way we wanted to start the series," Richards added. "But going home, I said all along, we played well there. We feel very comfortable playing there. So we have to go in and play like we have been lately."
The Flyers are right to be confident about their chances of getting back in this series in Philadelphia, but Chicago has also been superb on the road in the postseason, going 7-1 away from United Center.
Philadelphia also has to compete with history once again because only two teams in NHL history have lost the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals on the road and come back to win the series.
Luckily for the Flyers, they don't have to look far for inspiration, Pittsburgh pulled off the feat last spring, losing Games 1 and 2 in Detroit before winning the series in seven.