Antti Niemi Bandwagon Back in Business for The Blackhawks

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IMarch 24, 2010

CHICAGO - FEBRUARY 09: Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks drops to make a save in the third period as teammate Brent Seabrook #7 defends against James Neal #18 of the Dallas Stars at the United Center on February 9, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Stars 4-3 in a shoot out.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After Tuesday night's shut out of the Phoenix Coyotes, it appears that Antti Niemi is the man in net for the Chicago Blackhawks. 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 veteran Cristobal Huet. Certainly his start at the New York Islanders on March 3, where he allowed three goals 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.  Niemi's been perhaps the biggest reason for those valuable points while the defense in front of him has struggled through injuries.

His numbers have been great since the Islanders fiasco, including the time he started against Detroit. He's allowed 11 goals on 148 shots (.926 save pct), with shutouts at Los Angeles and at home against the hottest team in the NHL, 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 your head.

For the season, Niemi has six shutouts in 26 starts and a 20-5-3 record (he has relieved Huet three times). After his shutout 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 shutouts are tied for fifth in the NHL, but putting that number into context makes it more impressive.

Every other net minder 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, who has again started only 26 times, have played in more than double Niemi's 29 appearances.

For the season, the Blackhawks are allowing the fewest shots on goal per game at 24.7. 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).

Consider the defense in front of Niemi during his recent stretch of strong play.

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 10 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.

For more great coverage of the Chicago Blackhawks, check out Tab's blog: CommittedIndians.com!


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