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2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 2: Once again, Niemi the difference for Hawks

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Before the postseason started, there were many early favorites for who would be the recipient of the Conn Smythe at the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Of course, these would be dependent on the rest of their team as well, but I doubt that anyone had Antti Niemi at the top of their pool before the playoffs started.

Yet with the Chicago Blackhawks two wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup over their heads Niemi has been the consistent difference maker for his team, coming up gigantic at the most crucial moment in games and always making the big save when his team needed it most.

In Game 1, Niemi allowed five goals in the first two periods as his team struggled uncharacteristically on defense and he fought with his own confidence in net. He didn’t resemble the consistent goaltender who played so great against the Sharks, perhaps needing 40 minutes or so to get back in the flow of the game after having some time off after the Conference finals. Whatever reason it was, Niemi turned it around in the third period and while he wasn’t tested a lot he made several big saves to preserve the win for the Hawks.

Tonight, he looked very much like himself once more. He was compact in his stance and playing forward in his crease, challenging the shooters and tracking the puck through traffic much better than in Game 1. He wasn’t truly tested until the second period, when the Flyers started to really put the pressure on but it was in the third period that Niemi truly shined.

The Flyers, facing a 2-0 deficit heading into the third, came alive and used their relentless forecheck to knock the Blackhawks back on their heels. The pulled within one goal when Simon Gagne’s slapshot hit a stick down low and knuckled over the shoulder of Niemi and in. After that, Niemi was perfect as he turned away shot after shot from the Flyers including several prime scoring chances in the final minutes of the game.

He was calm and collected in net, and with the Blackhawks once again struggling with the offensive pressure of the Flyers he proved to be the difference maker. He would finish with 32 saves on 33 shots, and ensured that the Flyers would need to complete yet another miraculous comeback if they hoped to win the Stanley Cup.

Before the series started, Jonathan Toews was clearly the favorite for the MVP. With Toews completely shutdown so far against the Flyers, and despite allowing five goals in Game 1, there should be no doubt who the new leader is for the Conn Smythe. He hasn’t always been perfect, but he has made the big saves and had the great game when his team needed him most.

After the game, several of the Flyers players stated that they didn’t feel they really tested Niemi and they didn’t give him all they had. It’s tough to argue with that statement, even when you consider the 15 shots on net they put up in the third period.

Forget the amount of shots or the actual pressure the Flyers were producing. Focus on the actual types of shots they were putting on net. One thing the San Jose Sharks proved in the Western Conference finals was that Antti Niemi is at his best when the puck is shot low. He’s a traditional butterfly goaltender, and is nearly unbeatable when he is on and the pucks are shot at his pads.

Don’t you think the Flyers would see that, and think that perhaps the best way to beat Niemi is up high? He doesn’t have the best upper-body reflexes, not that great a glove hand. Yet in Game 2, the Flyers consistently fired the pucks low, and Niemi turned them all aside. Now, the Blackhawks defense has something to do with this as well but I can’t explain my frustration while watching puck after puck being shot directly into Niemi’s pads.

Niemi had a great game no doubt, but the Flyers certainly helped.2