Antti Niemi's expression seldom changes. Sometimes it is hard to tell if he has let in five goals, made a series of stellar saves or helped his team get within two wins of capturing the Stanley Cup. The Chicago Blackhawks are just glad he is in goal. The 26-year-old from Finland, who once drove an ice resurfacing machine to help pay the bills, is playing in his first NHL post-season and is seemingly not fazed by where he has landed. "Maybe it's better he has no experience," Ben Eager, his teammate, said. "We're really confident when he's in net."
Niemi had 14 of his 32 saves in the final period on Monday night, preserving the Blackhawks' 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup finals. The series shifts to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4 tonight and on Friday. It was Niemi's last-period performance that really brought the raucous Chicago crowd of 22,275 to their feet when the puck finally slid down the ice and the Flyers would not score in the final 1min 44secs after pulling Michael Leighton, the goalie, for an extra attacker.
They chanted Niemi's name and nearly drowned out an on-ice interview. "It's unbelievable feeling how the people react," Niemi said. "Defence was the key." After a wild opener won by the Blackhawks 6-5 when Niemi did indeed give up five goals, the teams tightened up on defence and played a testy and chippy game. Chicago broke a scoreless tie when Marian Hossa and Eager scored 28 seconds apart late in the second period.
And after the Flyers got a power-play goal from Simon Gagne early in the third, Niemi withstood a furious late flurry from the Flyers to preserve Chicago's seventh consecutive win. "I don't think we tested him very much," Danny Briere, the Flyers right winger, said. "I thought we made him look good with outside shots way too often. I thought he played well in the third period, but we didn't create much traffic. We didn't have many quality chances. We have to do a better job there."
Niemi is 14-4 in the play-offs. Monday night's win was one of his toughest, especially with the Flyers peppering him late in the game. And throughout these play-offs, he has had ability to follow a bad game with a good one, just as he did in Game 2. "It's a great thing that it's been that way. I want to keep it that way later, too," he said. "But maybe it comes out of how I feel after the bad game or game allowing five or four goals. I don't know how it happens."
Hossa, playing in his third consecutive Stanley Cup finals with a different team, got his third goal of the play-offs and his first since May 5 against Vancouver in the conference semi-finals. "It bugged me, definitely," Hossa said of his goal drought. "I tried not to get frustrated but I was waiting for something; a garbage goal." Now the Flyers return home, where they are 7-1 in the play-offs - the same record the Blackhawks have on the road this post-season. But history says the Blackhawks will be hard to overtake. The Stanley Cup finals record for home teams that sweep the first two games is 31-2.
But the Flyers have proved they can rally. They wouldn't be where they are without one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history, overcoming a 3-0 deficit against Boston in the Eastern semi-finals. "The third period was all about us," Kimmo Timonen, the Philadelphia defenceman said. "If we can keep playing that way for 60 minutes, we're going to win games. Now we go home. We've got to make sure that we bring that extra gear." * AP