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NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks vs. Sharks, Game 4: This year, Antti Niemi is the difference

Niemi5.jpgChicago Blackhawks vs. San Jose Sharks, Game 4 3:00 p.m. EDT, May 23, 2010 Live on NBC Blackhawks lead series 3-0

Heading into the playoffs, there were a number of players that you could expect to step up and be the difference maker for the Chicago Blackhawks. Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp; even Marian Hossa had the potential to be a surprise once the playoffs started. It happens every year: a successful team in the playoffs needs not just it’s best players to step up but the role players and the fringe players as well.

You always hope that the Sidney Crosby’s, Alex Ovechkin’s and Nicklas Lidstrom’s would be at their best in the postseason, but if this year has taught us anything it’s that there’s no way a team can advance without more than just some help to take the pressure off the top players.

Last year it was Evgeni Malkin.

The year before it was Henrik Zetterberg.

This season, for the Chicago Blackhawks, it’s.....Antti Niemi?

The Finnish goaltender played 39 games for the Blackhawks this past season and has just 42 games under his belt in the NHL. He was an unknown goaltender two years ago, a player no one thought twice about until video of his play was sent to the Blackhawks. He was never expected to be this important for the Hawks, yet he was to whom the team turned to be their playoff goaltender when Cristobal Huet eventually fell apart.

Coming out of the Olympic break, and directly into the trade deadline, the Blackhawks steadfastly stood by their goaltending situation despite outcries from every corner that things would fall apart once the postseason began. It appears that the Hawks never really considered a move at the deadline -- and in reality, the price was going to be extremely steep -- and headed into the second part of the season with all of their faith in Huet.

He played in just six games after the Olympic break, starting five and losing three. Antti Niemi didn’t do much to steal the job himself and coach Joel Quenneville implored for one of these two goaltenders to do something, anything to step up and prove they deserved the job in the postseason. Eventually, Niemi was named the goaltender for the Hawks in the postseason and mainly because he just the “he’s not as bad as Huet” option. The high-priced goaltender last appeared for the Sharks on March 25th, allowing seven goals in a blowout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now, Niemi has advanced from steady playoff goaltender to miracle worker in net for the Blackhawks and in three games has shown that all the worries about goaltending in the playoffs were far from warranted.

The Blackhawks have played inspired hockey for two straight series now after seemingly sleepwalking against the Predators. Against the Canucks, it was their antagonizing approach that set off Roberto Luongo and gave them the edge they needed against a team that some -- including myself -- were convinced was more talented than the Hawks. Yet against the Sharks, a team that has played with their backs against the wall since Game 1, it’s been Niemi that’s been the edge and inspiration the Hawks have rallied behind.

He’s certainly hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been as close as can be expected. In game’s 1 and 3 combined he faced 91 shots and allowed just three. Under barrage in the third period in Game 3 Niemi stopped 17 of 18 shots while his team was under incredible pressure by the Sharks.

Coming into the postseason it was thought that if the Niemi could at least provide decent goaltending then the Blackhawks would at least have a better shot than last season. Heading into Game 4, with a chance to eliminate the Sharks and move on to the Stanley Cup finals, he’s been much, much more than just ‘decent’.

He’s inspired, he’s playing confident and he’s tracking the puck and moving laterally as well as I’ve ever seen from Niemi. He’s become better as the playoffs continue and for the Blackhawks who made very little changes after last year’s disappointment, it seems that Antti Niemi is the difference maker that Chicago needed. Not Hossa, not Keith and not Kane; it was none other than Annti Niemi.