It might be time for the NHL to begin a “History will be made” commercial that ends with “What if Niemi said yes?”
In what has become the story of the young Finnish goalie’s career, Antti Niemi bounced back from a rough performance on Saturday night to deliver a signature performance in Game Two of the Stanley Cup Finals. When a third period that drew memories of Glen Hall, Tony Esposito and Ed Belfour concluded, Niemi was named the game’s number one star and listened as 22,000 ecstatic fans chanted his name.
After a Game One that saw very little effective defense played in the first 40 minutes, Game Two began as a physical assault by both teams on the boards instead of the back of the net. The teams combined for 33 hits and zero goals in the first frame, but the Blackhawks carried the action early.
“The first period I thought they came out strong,” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said after the game. ”I thought they held the edge in physical play in the first period… Their first period was stronger. We like to come out stronger than that… I think their game influenced it a little bit.”
As the second period began, Philadelphia began to take the momentum away. They were more effective on the forecheck and we able to hold the puck in the Blackhawks’ zone more efficiently. Indeed, in the first 14 minutes of the second the United Center crowd was fairly quiet and tame.
But it was Niemi that provided the spark to both those on the bench and in the stands. He made a fabulous glove save on an Arron Asham one-timer that was coming across his body away from his momentum at 14:26 that woke up the crowd. Less than three minutes later, the Blackhawks would get on the board.
Marian Hossa, who had been hearing throughout the playoffs about his lack of scoring, finally found the back of the net on a tough rebound in traffic. He pumped his arms and looked upward in relief as “Chelsea Dagger” ignited the Chicago crowd. There was once again life, at roughly 110 decibels, in the United Center.
After the game, most of the Blackhawks spoke about their relief when Hossa posted the first goal of the game. Obviously the most relieved was Hossa.
“Yeah, you know, it bugged me definitely not going goals for me,” said Hossa. “I was waiting for… [a] garbage goal and hopefully now that our line keeps going offensively.”
Despite not getting on the scoresheet with goals, Hossa has racked up 11 assists and leads the Blackhawks with a plus-10 rating in the postseason. Patrick Sharp spoke about Hossa after the game.
“He’s so composed out there, so strong with the puck,” said Sharp. “As a centerman, I just throw it over to his side and he always comes up with it. He’s playing his best hockey in the last two games.”
Before many of the fans had settled back into their seats and put their rally towels back in their pockets, Ben Eager blasted a long wrist shot pack Michael Leighton to extend the lead to 2-0. Only 28 seconds elapsed between goals, and the United Center was officially up for grabs.
“It was definitely a nice feeling to see that one go it,” said Eager. “It was a big shift before us. [Hossa] scored a big goal for us and really got the bench going.”
As the second period came to a close, a period that had been largely controlled by the Flyers, the Blackhawks skated to their dressing room with a two goal lead.
The third period brought hell from the Flyers.
Philadelphia put 15 shots on net in the third, including a number of late flurries. With only one second remaining on a physical power play that was highlighted by a big hit behind the net on Ville Leino by Brent Sopel, Simon Gagne cut the Blackhawks lead in half. With over 14 minutes left in the third period and the Blackhawks leading by just one goal, the Flyers threw everything they had at Niemi.
And Niemi said no.
On the night the rookie Chicago netminder kept 32 of 33 saves out of the net (.970 save percentage), including 29 of 30 in the final two periods. Philadelphia heads home searching for a win and come confidence.
“It’s frustrating,” said Flyers’ goalie Michael Leighton. “We know the firs game we didn’t play our best hockey. Tonight we played good, but the third was out best period.”
Leighton bounced back from being pulled in the second period on Saturday night to stop 24 of 26 shots (.923 save percentage). It wasn’t good enough, however.
“Obviously [this is] not the way we wanted to start the series,” said Flyers’ captain Mike Richards. “We had a mediocre second period and it cost us… It’s got to be there as a consistent 60 minutes next game.”
The next chance the Flyers will have to skate for 60 minutes will be on their ice in Philadelphia on Wednesday night.