After it was over, Antti Niemi looked like he won a heavyweight bout. Not because he was bloodied but because he had a championship belt slung over his shoulder with the name “Nemo” on it.
“This was the first time,” Niemi explained. “Every winning game. For the hardest working player, I guess. I think its [Brent] Seabrook’s idea. He showed it to the whole team in Phoenix.”
“It’s sort of a fun thing,” Seabrook explained. “I saw it in Phoenix there and I actually grabbed it for myself for me and Sharp to see who wins the battle in the hotel room but we sort of bounced the idea around a little bit and thought it would be a good idea. It’s something fun, something unique, and something cool ... [Hawks coach Joel Quenneville] and [team president John McDonough] were cool with it and we just went with it.”
Niemi was certainly deserving as the inaugural winner of the belt. He stopped 28 shots, each of them seemingly tougher than the one before, earning his sixth shutout in the 2-0 win. No save may have been better than his glove stop while down and out on Taylor Pyatt to preserve the shutout midway through the third period. Niemi refused to take all the credit.
“I think the team played a compact game in our end,” Niemi said. “Like last time we were winning 2-0 and we just wanted to play good defense and not give too many scoring chances.”
Joel Quenneville liked how his team played in its own end as well but said they could “clean the puck out” around the goal a little quicker. Overall, he was happy with the performance, especially from Niemi.
The Hawks took over sole possession of first place in the conference with 10 games to play and that’s a feat not lost on the players.
“Being in first is great,” John Madden said. “Our goal it to keep ramping up a little bit every game heading towards the playoffs with our best foot forward.
Are the problems playing with the lead fixed? Only time and a few more solid efforts will tell but for now, the Hawks are right where they want to be: Looking down at the rest of the conference with the finish line in sight.
Brian Campbell attended a game for the first time since suffering a broken clavicle and ribs 10 days ago. He said he’s still “frustrated” over what happened to him but looks forward to returning later in the playoffs.