I know, it’s only two games… but…
The playing field in the NHL postseason is level; every series split the first two games. This is the first postseason to have every series go 1-1 since 1987.
Some netminders have played incredibly well, while others have struggled. In Denver, Avalanche goalie Craig Anderson kept 51 shots out of his net against the San Jose Sharks last night and got an overtime win (and 2-1 series lead) when Dan Boyle put the puck into his own net off Evgeni Nabokov’s leg.
Other goalies have struggled. Detroit’ Jimmy Howard has been a complete bust in the postseason, allowing the league’s worst goals against average through three games (3.72). The only goalie that’s close to Howard, Washington’s Jose Theodore, was pulled in the Capitals last game and replaced.
Of the 17 goalies that have played in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, however, one stands above the rest. It’s not future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, or gold medal winner Roberto Luongo. It’s not USA Olympic hero Ryan Miller or Calder Trophy candidate Tuukka Rask. It’s the Finnish netminder that received the least confidence from the media at-large when the playoffs started: Antti Niemi.
Fans all over North America, even if their own team was starting a rookie (cough, Detroit, cough) said a rookie couldn’t take a team to the promised land. Indeed, if anyone was going to be 2010′s Cam Ward, it would clearly be Howard after his incredible stretch between the Olympics and playoffs. And yet, when the dust from the regular season settled, five of the eight teams in the Western Conference were heading into the playoffs with a postseason virgin between the pipes.
Niemi has been exceptional in net for Chicago, despite losing the first game of the series at home. He has allowed just two goals (both in the first game) so far (a goals against average of 1.01 – the best in the playoffs). Despite Anderson’s epic performance last night for the Avs, Niemi’s .957 save percentage is also the best in the playoffs.
Sunday night’s victory was also the first shutout of the 2010 postseason (Anderson followed in Denver later Sunday night).
All season long, Niemi has forced the issue with haters and doubters. Indeed, the Blackhawks coaches refused to hand him the top spot on the depth chart until the end of March, despite Niemi ranking among the league leaders in goals against average in the regular season. His seven shutouts tied for third-best in the NHL this year, despite Niemi playing in less than half of the Blackhawks games this year.
Now that the playoffs have started, the same doubters and haters have appeared, ready and willing to explain at length how and why Niemi can’t get the job done. Meanwhile, with few words and many actions, the Blackhawks rookie netminder continues to prove them wrong.
Yes, the Blackhawks haven’t won anything but one game so far in the playoffs. But with most other playoff rookies struggling in net so far, the performance of Niemi has bene exceptional.