Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: Antti answers the call

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Hawk Talk: Antti answers the call

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
11:39 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

CHICAGO Its easy to envision a future Deadspin lead story, one about an ascendant superstar goalie who sneaks up on the NHL and sets it on its ear, all the while never informing his parents or friends in Finland how hes finding his fortune in the United States.

As ludicrous as it sounds, Antti Niemiand apparently, his friends and familyis so even-keeled, such a story might just be true, and that for all anyone knows back home, hes simply found consistent work as a house painter or electrician and isnt a young man four wins from backstopping his way to a Stanley Cup, and turning the longest Cup drought in the NHLs books today soaking wet.

No, Im not really talking to anybody in Finland, Niemi said. My friends dont really want to mess me up, they want to keep me focused. Even my parents, we just talk about regular things, not hockey.

While this may stun those of us who would be sneaking excited phone calls or texts from the dressing room during intermissions during such a stellar playoff run, Niemi seems to have found the antidote to anxiety. Hes the coolest customer in the dressing room who just happens to man the most nerve-wracking position.
I just move on to the next thing, good or bad, Niemi said. A goal, I focus about the next puck. A save, I focus on the next puck. A win, I focus on the next game.

Maybe some of it has to do with Niemis expectations for the season. Back in September, there were none. I was just trying to make the team, he said of his battle for the backup role with the preordained No. 2, Corey Crawford.

His teammates didnt exactly welcome himhe was mostly an unknown, after all. His halting English didnt make matters much easier, although veteran netminder Cristobal Huet, himself a non-native English speaker, made life easier for the young backstop. He formed a fast bond with a fellow young Scandinavian player, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Niemi tossed a shutout in his first start of the season, the Blackhawks second game of the year, in front of his home fans in Helsinki (the netminders hometown of Vantaa is a suburb of the Finnish capital). Every time out, if he wasnt getting better, he was certainly proving himself an NHL-caliber goalie.

He just kept putting great performances in the books for us, Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. Through a variety of challenges, he came out looking good.

All year, Anttis had our backs, Chicago center Dave Bolland said. We know hes going to take care of us.

In reality, the starting job was never Niemis to win, but Huets to lose. As the veteran struggled, treading water all season, Niemi continued to grow and learnand occasionally put on a mind-boggling performance, like his 1-0 shutout in Vancouver over the Canucks on Nov. 22, a 2-1 overtime win in Pittsburgh vs. the Penguins on Dec. 5, or a 4-3 shootout win in Detroit to upend the Red Wings on Jan. 21.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has described Niemi in a number of colorful and awestruck ways, the best of which is the strangely appropriate laid-backish. The mentor has consistently praised the rookies demeanor, and unflappability.

His presence has been key for us, Quenneville said. Hes done pretty much whatever weve asked of him. His consistency, his ability to repeat success and eliminate mistakes, has contributed to his confidence and we on the team benefit from that.

Interestingly, the least experienced player on the active roster is one of the most calm and confident, even as the games increase in tension and payoff.

I am feeling more confident than ever, Niemi admits, with some goading. But that is the sort of thing that I put away, right away.

The budding star has also admitted during this playoff run that hes aware hes becoming an elite NHL goaltender. But again, such thoughts are stored away. Ill think about that in the summer, he said. Until then, it doesnt matter anyway.

One of the simple gifts of this storied Chicago season has been watching this backstop blossom, slowly gaining confidence, both on the ice and in dressing room interviews. Seeing him chat with a reporter in his native tongue while in Vancouver, this reticent and stoic player suddenly grinning widely and gesturing in all manner of Jimmie Walker and John Belushi, was revelatory.

The young fella is no different from any of us, aside from making his living off of beating back rubber slabs shot his way at upwards of 100 mph, and bringing a little Clint Eastwood braggadocio to the ice as he flips the pucks back at the offense as if to ask if thats all its got.

Its rare that the unflappable Finn flops on the ice, and barely more so hell even admit to any tension. Those times, you have to bronze and store away, like when Niemi talks about how hard it is, win or lose, to get to sleep after a game, replaying it over in his mind. Likewise when he admitted that Game 3s overtime period vs. the San Jose Sharks was so tense I didnt even realize right away the game was over after Dustin Byfugliens game-winner, or that after Big Buffs eventual game-winner in Game 4 Niemi couldnt even recall how much time was left on the clock (10 minutes? Three minutes? I cannot even remember, but I was hoping the clock would go much faster.).

There are even those moments of awe, where you wonder whether any of this has sunk in on Niemi, who admitted in full candor that Ive dreamed of the Stanley Cup since I was seven, but that dream seemed too far away to even be a dream.

Well, Niemi is certainly living that dream today. And, Mr. or Mrs. Niemi back in Vantaa, if youre reading, your son isnt a successful plumber or painter herehes manning the pads and saying NO! to the best Blackhawks opponents the NHL has to offer.

Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

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USA TODAY

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

For Jordan Oesterle, the wait really wasn’t a terrible thing.

Sure, he was used to playing more consistently in the past. But he knew with the Blackhawks carrying eight defensemen that several players, including him, would need to practice patience and understanding.

“It hasn’t been too long. It’s only been a week and a half so it’s not terrible,” said Oesterle on Thursday morning, a few hours before he made his Blackhawks debut against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

For the second consecutive season the Blackhawks are going with eight defensemen to start the season. In one way, it’s good: if anything goes awry, be it someone’s game or someone’s health, the depth is readily there.

But so are the challenges. It’s a juggling act, a delicate balance between making the right decisions and making sure a player understands that a scratch may be more about the rotation and not his individual game.

Communication, above all, is key.

“It’s not easy being the guys who are in or out, right on that bubble situation where you come in not knowing if you’re going to play. But as a staff we want to keep everyone involved,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know the depth of your defense is going to get challenged at some point during the year. We feel the eight guys who are here can play but that’s how we’ve always done it: We’ve always let guys know whether you’re in or out. Sometimes you have to be more patient than you’d like but handling it the right way, whether you’re a good pro or teammate, that can be healthy around the environment of your team.”

Based on all outward appearances, everyone has handled it well. Connor Murphy has been a healthy scratch twice – “I mean I just want to see the team win really...if we're winning and guys are playing well that's all that matter,” Murphy said after his first scratch.

Oesterle was a healthy scratch the first seven games. Michal Kempny, who Oesterle replaced, has been scratched the last two games. Cody Franson has also sat seven games. Franson, whose patience has been in place while awaiting contracts in his career, is practicing it again. But he’s appreciated the Blackhawks’ communication on it.

“This situation gets tough when they don’t say anything to you; you don’t know if it’s because of the way you’re playing, you don’t know if it’s something you did or what the situation is. The coaching staff has done a great job of being in our ear, letting us leave our work at the rink and not take it home with us,” Franson said. “That goes a long way in being able to stay positive and in the right mindset through it.”

After starting with eight defensemen last season the Blackhawks eventually went back to seven. Will they do that again this season? Maybe, but whoever gets sent down would most likely have to go through waivers. The Blackhawks reassigned Gustav Forsling last season to get back to seven defensemen and get Forsling more playing time. But this season Forsling and Jan Rutta have been dependable and have pretty much become the Blackhawks’ second pairing.

So for now, eight defensemen it shall be. Being part of the rotation isn’t always easy but so far players seem to get that it’s for the greater good.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve got eight quality guys. I think no matter who’s sitting on any given night, it might not necessary be due to how they’re playing or how they’re doing individually,” Franson said. “I think Q’s done a great job of managing that situation. That’s one of those things where it’s a great problem to have but it’s not an easy one to handle. So we’re all aware of what’s taking place right now and you just try to be as professional about it as you can.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 4-2 win over Coyotes: Puck don't lie

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 4-2 win over Coyotes: Puck don't lie

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night:
 
1. Surviving a crazy first period.

The Blackhawks committed four penalties in the opening frame within a 2:18 span, and escaped unscathed from it despite a pair of 5-on-3 opportunities for the Coyotes.

Of course, the only goal allowed in the period came from a fluke deflection off Jordan Oesterle's stick and slipped underneath Corey Crawford's five-hole.

Joel Quenneville likes to say the team that takes advantage of their 5-on-3 opportunities has a pretty good chance to win the game. It applied in this case, with the Blackhawks coming out victorious after surviving that stretch.

2. Power play comes alive early.

The Blackhawks got off on the right foot in an area that has been an issue for them this season, capitalizing on their first power play of the game 24 seconds into it when Richard Panik redirected a Jonathan Toews shot that tricked past Louis Domingue.

Good thing too, because it was the only man advantage they'd get. Well, excluding the power play they received with 17 seconds left in regulation when the game was already decided. 
 
3. Another controversial review in Arizona.

What's with it with controversial reviews in Arizona and the Blackhawks being on the wrong end of the call?

The Blackhawks appeared to have taken a 3-1 lead when Tommy Wingels converted on a penalty shot, but it was overturned after officials reviewed it and determined the Coyotes netminder got a stick on Wingels' initial shot. Replays didn't exactly show conclusive evidence, but the NHL released a statement proving otherwise:

Video review determined that Wingels shot the puck into the net after Arizona goaltender Louis Domingue made contact with the puck. According to Rule 24.2, "No goal can be scored on a rebound of any kind."

Shortly after, the Coyotes scored in the final minutes of the period to even up the score at 2-2 in a big turn of events at the time.
 
4. ... But puck don't lie.

The overturned penalty shot didn't matter in the end though, because the Blackhawks came away with the victory and Wingels ended up getting his first goal after all on an empty netter that iced the game.

It was Wingels' first goal as a member of his hometown team, and it was well deserved for a guy who was part of the fourth line that turned in arguably their best performance of the season.
 
5. Lance Bouma rewarded with game-winning goal.

Speaking of which, it was fitting that Bouma scored the game winner with 4:24 left in the third period because that trio of Bouma, Wingels and John Hayden was around the net for the majority of the night.

They combined for two goals and two assists, had eight attempts shot attempts (five on goal), eight of the team's 16 hits and four blocked shots.