After Tuesday night’s shut out of the Phoenix Coyotes, it appears that Antti Niemi is the man in net for the Chicago Blackhawks. However, a deeper look at the numbers should give Blackhawks fans more confidence in the rookie moving into April.
Niemi has had some rough patches this year, just like Cristobal Huet; certainly his start at the New York Islanders on March 3 (three goals allowed on 12 shots before being removed) was cause for concern. But Niemi has bounced back with prolonged stretches of solid work between the pipes throughout the season, and his current stretch is no different.
Since replacing Huet in net against Detroit on March 7, Niemi has been solid. He has won three of five starts in that stretch, with overtime/shootout losses to Washington and Phoenix mixed in. That means the Blackhawks have scored at least one point in each of Niemi’s past five starts, and Niemi’s been perhaps the biggest reason for those valuable points while the defense in front of him has struggled through injuries.
Including the time Niemi played against Detroit, his numbers have been great since the Islanders fiasco. He’s allowed 11 goals on 148 shots (.926 save pct), with shut outs at Los Angeles and at home against the hottest team in the NHL from Phoenix. In fact, for stretches of time in the Washington and Phoenix losses, Niemi was amazing; when you’re facing over 30 shots a night, it’s hard to stay on you’re head for two weeks.
For the season, Niemi has six shut outs in 26 starts and a 20-5-3 record (he has relieved Huet three times). After his shut out on Tuesday night, Niemi’s 2.19 goals against average ranks second in the NHL behind only Boston’s Tuukka Rask; Olympic hero Ryan Miller is right behind Niemi at 2.20 per game. His six shut outs are tied for fifth in the NHL, but putting that number into context makes it more impressive. Every other netminder with more than five shutouts this season has accomplished that total in more than 50 games; four of the five players ranking higher than Niemi have played in more than double Niemi’s 29 appearances.
Consider the defense in front of Niemi during his recent stretch of strong play. For the season, the Blackhawks are allowing the fewest shots on goal per game at 24.7 per game. However, in March the Hawks are allowing 26.8 and Niemi has faced 28 shots per game in his last five (including only 17 shots from the Kings). With Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson missing significant time, and Dustin Byfuglien moving back to the blue line, there has been no consistency in front of Niemi in the past couple weeks.
There are now ten games remaining before the playoffs begin. Niemi has been strong against almost exclusively playoff-level competition over the past two weeks, and will continue to be tested between now and April 11. If he continues to play as strong as he has over the past five starts, there is reason for Hawks fans to have confidence and faith as the playoffs begin.