If this is how Antti Niemi plays coming off the flu, here’s hoping he gets a cough more often. It took a late 5-on-3 power play goal by the St. Louis Blues to ruin the shutout bid, but Niemi and the Chicago Blackhawks held on for a 2-1 win Saturday night.
Niemi was supposed to start against St. Louis last Wednesday, but called in sick. He felt bad enough that the Hawks had to call up an emergency goaltender to back up Cristobal Huet. They lost that game and the next one, but Niemi stopped the losing right there. In doing so, he lowered his league-leading goals against average and rebounded from a poor showing in his last outing.
“He’s a heck of a goalie that’s for sure,” Patrick Sharp said on Comcast SportsNet after the game. “There’s times when players have open nets and it looks like he’s down and out and he doesn’t give up. He continues to work and compete harder than anyone I’ve seen in there.”
And this was no 18-save performance. Niemi stopped 34 shots, including two in the opening seconds of the game as he denied Eric Brewer and Brad Boyes. From there it was one pad save after another as he and the Hawks broke a season-high three-game losing streak.
“He was more than fine,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville stated.
Last time he played, Niemi had been on a roll but lasted only one period in Vancouver. That was two weeks ago. He showed no signs of rust. In fact he was as technically sound as ever. He’s excelled as a backup goalie, admitting early in the season he wasn’t sure how he would react to days and weeks of inactivity. I think we know the answer.
Though he flopped in his opportunity to start back-to-back games on a recent road trip, Saturday put him back on track as a viable option for Quenneville down the stretch. Sharp echoed what his teammates have been saying all year about him and Huet.
“That’s another thing that we hear a lot about, is our goaltending situation,” Sharp said. “Inside our locker room we just kind of chuckle and shake our heads. We’re confident with whoever is in the net back there. And we feel good about it.”
Quenneville was pleased with his new line combinations and the intensity his team displayed but added that “it certainly helps when you get a goalie win.”
It does, indeed.
Toews was very critical of his team after Friday’s loss to Phoenix. On Saturday, he put his money where his mouth is with a huge game. He was plus two with a goal and an assist. He also won 68 percent of his faceoffs.
Quenneville wasn’t mincing words on Comcast SportsNet about a late unsportsmanlike conduct call against Brent Sopel. It allowed St. Louis a two man advantage with just minutes remaining. “I’ve never seen that called in that situation before,” Quenneville bluntly stated.
Ben Eager was scratched with a lower body injury. Quenneville called it a “short term thing.”