A look at former Zamboni driver and current Chicago Blackhawks starting goaltender Antti Niemi

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Friday, May 14, 2010 - Save & Share - One Comment

Stanley Cup Playoffs Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi goal chart

Stanley Cup Playoffs Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi goals against average gaa save percentage

Fans and even players in San Jose can be excused for not being overly familiar with Chicago Blackhawks starting goaltender Antti Niemi, the second straight rookie netminder the Sharks have faced in the playoffs. Niemi began 2009-10 battling Corey Crawford for the backup position behind Cristobal Huet. He was given the second start of the season as part of the NHL Premiere series featuring Chicago vs. Florida in Helsinki.

13 miles from his hometown of Vantaa, Niemi stopped all 23 shots he faced in front of 11,526 countrymen. “Niemi showed us he is an NHL-level goalie,” defenseman Brian Campbell said of the 4-0 shutout. Niemi would go on to prove to Chicago and head coach Joel Quenneville that he was not just an NHL-caliber goaltender, but also an NHL-caliber starting goaltender. After earning 10 starts and registering a 9-2-1 record in the first half of the season, he would roll to a 17-5-3 record with 25 starts in the second half. Niemi and the Blackhawks would fall one point short of the San Jose Sharks for the Western Conference Championship.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Niemi was well regarded as a goaltending prospect in Finland. At the age of 24, he opened more than a few eyes with a 26-6-14 record, 2.35GAA and .927SV% for the Pelicans in the very competitive SM-liiga. Niemi was described then as a goaltender with size, solid coverage of the net down low, athletic with good footwork, and poise in net according to one scouting report.

Niemi is another in a long line of goaltenders coming out of the country of Finland. One former Finnish NHL netminder said two of the reasons for their success is a calm demeanor, and working with a goaltending coach from very early in their development. That is all well and good, but the Vancouver media were going to pick him apart and try to find holes for the Western Conference Semifinals. The Vancouver Province’s Jim Jamieson said for the Canucks to win, they will need to go upstairs to beat Chicago goalie Anttie Niemi.

β€œHe’s similar to (Jonathan) Quick. He’s been good for them this year. He’s a butterfly goalie that kicks out a lot of rebounds, like to block the puck. It’s the same thing – we’ll have to get it upstairs and get some rebounds and get some traffic to the net.” Canucks forward Alex Burrows told the Province. The numbers backed up Burrows after two rounds in the playoffs. 15 of the 30 goals scored on Niemi to date in the playoffs were scored on the top position of the net. High point shots from defenseman lead to rebounds and scoring chances, which contributed to several of the 15 goals scored down low.

The Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh checked in with one of the Blackhawks scouts responsible for bringing him to the Windy City. “He was a big goalie with quick feet who could go down low, and we thought we might have something there,” Chicago Blackhawks European scout Mats Hallin told the Tribune. “I could not have said Antti would turn out like this, when something like this happens, the whole organization is proud. When somebody like this comes along, everybody has a piece of it.” Niemi’s agent Bill Zito also told Haugh that with 21 NHL scouts in Finland, he was not surprised that 10 teams expressed interest in Niemi before he signed with Chicago as an undrafted free agent in 2008.

The success in Finland did not come instantly. He spent several years as a Zamboni driver in his hometown of Vantaa, and had to clock his share of mandatory service in the Finnish Army. Niemi progressed from the second division in Finland to the SM-liiga, and then impressed enough to earn a contract with Chicago. Antti Niemi recorded two shutouts in the first round against Nasvhille, but there were some rough spots. Nashville’s On the Forecheck asked Second City Hockey’s Sam Fels for a scouting report on Niemi prior to the first round:

[Q] What’s the scouting report on Antti Niemi? We only saw him against Nashville once back in December.

[A] Niemi has been playing out of his mind in April, so I’m far more confident in him than I was. He’s very athletic, and will make the highlight reel save. He does tend to be hunched over in the butterfly, so he does leave the upper part of the net open occasionally. He also doesn’t move side to side that well and leaves gaps there, and he’s downright awful handling the puck. However, he’s athletic enough to make up for most of that and he’s clearly bursting with confidence right now.

[Q] How short is Antti Niemi’s leash? If he falters, will we see Cristobal Huet?

[A] I would think Antti-goal’s leash is awfully long. Quenneville has never had much confidence in Huet — which he helped destroy but that’s another story — and couldn’t wait to throw his lot in with Niemi. Niemi would have to completely (bleep) himself in both Games 1 and 2 to even consider it, and Huet hasn’t played in over a month. That said, I don’t see that happening due to the combo of the strong defensive game the Hawks play and the Preds lack of punch. I can’t see where Niemi will see so many shots that he’ll have the opportunity to spit it.

In San Jose, Antti Niemi will face an offense as deep and as potent as his own. San Jose likes to drive down low and create plays with puck possession, then crash the net like a freight train to keep the goaltender and defense honest. Defenseman Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook may be the best defensive tandem in the NHL, but when the Sharks are clicking they have three lines that can generate scoring chances from any area in the offensive zone. Niemi is going to be tested early and often. He will have to match Evgeni Nabokov save for save if games get out of hand, and so far in this postseason he has shown the propensity to have 1 more tumultuous game a series than Nabokov.

The Sharks are not only facing their second straight rookie goaltender, but also the largest netminder they have faced in the postseason. This blog’s pre-WCQF scouting report on Colorado’s Craig Anderson was for the most part accurate on the basics, but Anderson proved to be very skilled at kicking rebounds just out of the reach of the Sharks forwards. Notes from outside scouting reports on his stickhandling were not correct, he was solid moving the puck and occasionally took liberties with his lumber in front of the net. There was no scouting report for Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, just a practice video and a few photos to get a feel for how he plays. Questions from the media and fans started bombarding Howard almost from the outset. He was questioned about blocker side, whether he went down too quickly into the butterfly, and there was even a note that former Detroit and current San Jose assistant coach Jay Woodcroft told Logan Couture he liked to cheat towards the middle. For his part, Howard did the admirable thing and said he was going to play his game and not respond to each individual critique. It was a lose-lose situation for Howard, and he handled it about as well as he could.

Notes and the graphic from Gabriel Dejardins courtesy of behindthenet.ca and hockey numbers. According to Dejardins, shot location information is not as readily available as it has been in the past.

[Update] Edge in Crease, how Sharks can beat Chicago’s Niemi – Mark Purdy for the San Jose Mercury News.

[Update2] THN Puck Panel – Sharks vs. Blackhawks, who has the advantage? – TheHockeyNews.com.

[Update3] FanHouse TV: Western Conference Finals Preview – Fanhouse.com with Dan Graziano and former player Doug Weight.

[Update4] Hawks’ Niemi outshining big stars – ESPN.

That same approach can be seen on the ice. The Blackhawks lost the first game in each of their first two series — Niemi was actually pulled after two periods during a 5-1 loss to Vancouver in the opener of the semifinals — but every time Chicago has dropped a game in these playoffs, he fixed it and rebounded with a victory.

“First game I saw him was an exhibition game. I was in Dallas as a scout and watching him play, he put on an amazing performance that game. I think he stopped about three or four 5-on-3s in the middle of the game and went on to get the win,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.

“We like his progress. He’s got size, presence and he’s got a great demeanor. A nice approach to the game, a nice approach after being scored on and looking ahead. … I think he’s a student of the game as well. We think he’s adapted to situations well.”

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Time February 21, 2011 at 8:41 PM

[...] for Antti in the second round against the Vancouver Canucks. As noted in a scouting report on this blog, the Canucks were on a mission to score goals up high. “I asked him to play higher, but also [...]