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NIEMI GOES FROM OBSCURITY TO ROCK BETWEEN THE PIPES

Article By: Mike Peck

Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images
05/18/2010 9:19 AM - As the Chicago Blackhawks continue another deep Stanley Cup Playoff run, goalie Antti Niemi continues to grow his mystique.

Just a year ago Niemi was with the Blackhawks during the team’s first run to the Western Conference Finals in nearly 20 years, but it was as a member of the “Black Aces”, the clubs practice squad for the postseason.

After playing three seasons professionally in his homeland of Finland, Niemi jumped the pond and brought his career to North America and the Blackhawks organization. Chicago signed the Finnish goalie to a one-year, two-way contract for the 2008-09 season and Niemi played the majority of his first North American campaign with the Rockford IceHogs (AHL).

In splitting time in Rockford with Corey Crawford, Niemi put up good enough numbers (18-14-3, .912 SPCT, 2.38 GAA) to earn him another contract with the Blackhawks for the 2009-10 season. The Vantaa, Finland native did get a taste of the NHL in ‘08-09, appearing in three games while earning his first career NHL win on March 1, 2009 against Los Angeles.

During training camp last fall Niemi and Crawford battled for the second goaltending spot on Chicago’s roster, at the time, behind Cristobal Huet.  The fight in camp went down to the wire as the Blackhawks took both Niemi and Crawford to Finland to open the regular season.

But a decision had to be made before Chicago’s season opener against the Florida Panthers near Niemi’s hometown in Finland and the hockey operations staff chose Niemi. The 6-foot, 2-inch puckstopper wasted little time solidifying his spot on the roster. Making his first start of the campaign in Helsinki, Finland, Niemi blanked the Panthers on 20 shots for his first career shutout in front of thousands of adoring countrymen.

Niemi used that confidence to win his next two starts and jump out to a 9-1-1 record just after Christmas. With the pressure on the Blackhawks to solidify their goaltending position, Niemi took over the top spot for good when the NHL resumed play after the Olympic break.

Overall during the regular season, Niemi posted a record of 26-7-4, nearly identical to his 26-6-14 mark that he earned during his final season in Finland in 2007-08 while blocking pucks for the Lahti Pelicans in the Finnish League.

Because of his age (26), Niemi is not officially considered a rookie. But just about every experience for Niemi this season has been a new one, including his recent stellar play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After an outstanding 44 save performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals in San Jose, Niemi has left little doubt in the minds of Hawks fans that he was the right choice to carry this team into the postseason.

During the remainder of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, icehogs.com will look at former Rockford IceHogs making an impact with the Chicago Blackhawks as they compete for the Stanley Cup.