Antti Niemi Making a Case For the Conn Smythe Trophy

Chris Eggemeyer@@chriseggemeyerCorrespondent IJune 2, 2010

CHICAGO - MAY 29:  Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks makes against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game One of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on May 29, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Everyone loves Jonathan Toews, and with good reason.

Toews is dominating the playoff rankings in points scored, and he and his line are directly responsible for the sweep of the San Jose Sharks. His role in the Blackhawks' drive to the Stanley Cup Finals has been undeniably important, both on and off the ice.

Toews hasn't been the most integral part of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup performance, though. Taking some other stats into consideration, another player rises to the top.

Antti Niemi, the "Finnish Fortress", is playing out-of-his-mind hockey right now. He has faced 532 shots so far this postseason and allowed 43 goals, coming out to a .919 save percentage.

Not bad for a goalie who was playing for the Rockford Ice Hogs last year.

While .919 might not seem incredible, that number hardly tells Niemi's whole story. Consider first the fact that he averaged .912 in the regular season. While the percentage increase is small, the fact that he is playing better in the postseason than he was in the regular season is impressive.

The .919 also doesn't tell the story of Niemi's ability to bounce back from hard games.

Niemi had a rough time in the series against Nashville, but followed two of his rough games (Game One - .917 and Game Two - .886) with shutouts. While not as impressive, his Game Five performance (.810) was followed with a .893.

Then came the Vancouver series. Niemi started with an abysmal .800 percentage, but locked down the cage with .923 and .937 in the next two games. He dropped to .867 and .870 in the next two, but sealed the fate of the Canucks with a stunning .967 game.

Little needs to be said about his performance in San Jose. One of his miraculous (and acrobatic) saves is featured in the NHL's History Will Be Made commercial series, and for good reason. It was just one great save in a series that saw Niemi contribute to a sweep with .978, .926, .957, and .889 games.

And now here we are in the Stanley Cup Finals, and Niemi keeps holding things down.

His first game was rough, a true display of SCF jitters, but he still managed to stop 27 of 32 (.844).

His performance Monday, though, truly stood out. He stoned a one on nobody, and held off a late game shooting flurry by the Flyers to carry the Hawks to a 2-1 victory on the back of a 97 percent save percentage.

The ups and downs may make Niemi seem inconsistent, but the most important thing is that he has rarely had back-to-back rough games. His ability to put tough losses (or wins in some cases) behind him and focus on improving his game makes him a true Conn Smythe contender.

When looking at these stats, consider also how, especially deep into the playoffs, Niemi has stepped up when the Blackhawks offense has not.

For example, in Game One of the series against San Jose, Niemi went 44-for-45, while the Hawks offense managed only two goals. Then, again, in Game Three, Niemi went 44-for-46, doing his best work in overtime as the Hawks managed a 3-2 win.

Facing 532 shots is a tall order, especially when they are coming from teams like Nashville, Vancouver, San Jose and Philadelphia—teams with good offenses. Niemi has turned away breakaway goals, three on twos, cross pass goals, and corner shots.

His glove saves make him look like something out of The Matrix . He is there when his team needs him the most.

Niemi may not get the Conn Smythe Trophy in the end, but he has done a lot to deserve it.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.