Behind Niemi the Blackhawks take 2-0 Stanley Cup lead
CHICAGO – Antti Niemi’s days of driving a Zamboni are long gone. Instead of cleaning the ice as he once did in his native Finland to make a few extra bucks, he’s clearing away pucks and hoping to help the Chicago Blackhawks hoist the Stanley Cup.
Niemi made 14 of his 32 saves in the third period and Chicago beat the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 Monday night to take a 2-0 series lead. Game 3 is Wednesday night and Game 4 is Friday, both in Philadelphia.
This was a different game from the opener when Niemi let in five goals in the Blackhawks’ 6-5 win.
“I think our ‘D’ played maybe a little bit better in front of the net in blocking shots and letting me see the puck,” Niemi said. “But it’s always a little bit about the luck, too, how you see the puck, and how it bounces.”
Game 2 took on a different tone from the outset.
Defenses were tightened. Bodies were flying and tempers flaring. There was one striking similarity – Chicago’s young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane again failed to account for a point, but the Blackhawks still won.
It was Niemi’s last-period performance that really brought the raucous crowd to its feet when the puck finally slid down the ice and the Flyers wouldn’t score in the final 1:44 after pulling goalie Michael Leighton for an extra attacker.
They chanted Niemi’s name and nearly drowned out an on-ice interview.
“It’s unbelievable feeling how the people react,” Niemi said. “Defense was the key.”
Chicago broke the scoreless tie when Marian Hossa and Ben Eager scored 28 seconds apart late in the second period against Michael Leighton.
And after the Flyers got a power-play goal from Simon Gagne early in the third, Niemi withstood a furious late flurry from the Flyers to preserve Chicago’s seventh straight win.
“I thought their goaltender played extremely well in the third period. We had more than enough looks to tie up that game,” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said.
Niemi is 14-4 in the playoffs. Monday night’s win was one of his toughest, especially with the Flyers peppering him late.
He has had the ability to follow a bad game during the playoffs with a good one.
“It’s a great thing that it’s been that way. I want to keep it that way later, too,” he said. “But maybe it comes out of how I feel after the bad game or game allowing five or four goals. I don’t know how it happens.”
His teammates have a nickname for the 6-foot-2 Niemi, who at age 26 is playing in his first NHL season.
“We call him the octopus because he’s got arms and legs going everywhere,” Chicago forward Adam Burish said. “He was special tonight. Niemi was unbelievable in that third period. Some of the pucks, I don’t know how he saw them.”
Patrick Sharp fired a shot from the left circle, and after Leighton stopped it and with Chicago’s Troy Brouwer battling for the puck, Hossa poked it in from the left side with 2:51 left in the second. Hossa, in his third straight Stanley Cup finals with a different team, got his third goal of the playoffs and first since May 5 against Vancouver in the conference semifinals.
“It bugged me definitely,” Hossa said of his goal drought. “I tried not to get frustrated but I was waiting for something. Like I said, a garbage goal.”
Just 28 seconds later with the crowd still abuzz, Dustin Byfuglien made a steal and passed the puck to fourth-line forward Eager. Eager skated to the right circle and unleashed a shot that beat Leighton high on the glove side to make it 2-0.
It was the first goal of the playoffs for Eager, a former Flyers forward, who did some yapping with defenseman Chris Pronger after the game.
“I don’t speak that language, whatever he was speaking,” Pronger said.
“Nothing, really, Just a postgame chat, it was nothing,” Eager said. “He’s just been picking the pucks up after the game. Told him he could keep it.”
Philadelphia broke through with 1 second left on a power play when Gagne scored from the left circle.
Gagne nearly chipped in a tying rebound about 7 minutes later, but was denied by Niemi’s pad in close.
Leighton, who was drafted by the Blackhawks and played parts of two seasons for them, got the nod despite being pulled in Game 1 after yielding five goals on 20 shots. He made 24 saves Monday.
“We had a little turnover at the blue line. I talked to Matt Carle about it. He said his gap wasn’t as good as he wanted it to be, so it allowed him to walk in,” Leighton said of Eager’s goal. “I just didn’t see him release the puck. He made a good shot.”
Hossa’s shot went off his pad, and Hossa flipped it in. “Just a tough bouncer,” Leighton said.
Trying to get more punch, the Flyers inserted forward Daniel Carcillo into the lineup. A scratch the last three games and known for his agitating style, Carcillo was the team leader in playoff penalty minutes (30) entering the game and joined Philadelphia captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter on a first line that had been pointless in the opener.
Carcillo replaced Gagne to start the game – Gagne later returned to the top line – and immediately began to mix things up. He took a run at Chicago’s Tomas Kopecky and inadvertently flattened teammate Carter.
The Flyers were called for their first penalty of the series with 5:12 left in the opening period, bringing out a loud roar from the crowd as the Blackhawks went on a power play for the first time in nearly 75 minutes. They couldn’t score.
About three minutes later, Chicago went on another power play when there were three penalties called simultaneously – two on the Flyers with Carcillo being sent to the box for unsportsmanlike conduct.
But the Blackhawks couldn’t convert, and the first period ended scoreless, quite a contrast from Game 1 when there were five goals in the opening 20 minutes. Outshot 17-9 in the first period of the opener, the Blackhawks had a 9-3 advantage in the rematch.
One of Chicago’s best scoring chances came in front of the net as Toews tried to punch the puck in before he was wedged out by Pronger, who then shoved his Olympic teammate into the boards, prompting an angry exchange.
Niemi used his right pad to stop Richards on a breakaway at 7:35 of the second, preserving the scoreless tie. And moments later, Leighton responded with a nice save on Duncan Keith in the slot after a good pass from Sharp.
Niemi then twice made stops on hard shots from Carcillo and another from Richards, but Leighton did the same against Hossa and Dave Bolland. One of Niemi’s best stops came with a stretched-out glove save against Arron Asham, prompting chants of “Ant-ti Ant-ti” from the crowd of 22,275.
The Flyers had three leads in the opener, weren’t called for a penalty, held Chicago’s top line scoreless and still lost.
NOTES: The Stanley Cup finals record for home teams that sweep the first two games is 31-2. In 1971, Chicago won the first two games at home but lost to Montreal in seven. In 2009, Detroit won the first two games at home but lost to Pittsburgh in seven. … Flyers LW James van Riemsdyk was scratched along with D Ryan Parent, who played only 41 seconds in the opener.
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