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Hawks' team effort nets goalie 1st win
By Joe Aguilar | Daily Herald Staff

Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi blocks a shot during the third period of his first NHL start Sunday at the United Center.


Associated Press

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Published: 3/2/2009 12:08 AM

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Antti Niemi had a long-distance phone call to make and a puck to ship home.

He planned to call his parents in Finland, with plans also of sending them the puck that teammate Andrew Ladd retrieved for him after the 25-year-old goalie earned his first National Hockey League victory.

Niemi stopped 22 shots in the Blackhawks' 4-2 win over Los Angeles on Sunday at the United Center.

"I feel real good," Niemi said. "I was really nervous, but the team played a great game and good 'D,' so it wasn't so bad."

Niemi, who signed with the Blackhawks last May after playing professionally for several years in his native Finland, was splitting time in net with Corey Crawford for the Blackhawks' minor-league affiliate Rockford IceHogs when he was called up recently to replace the injured Nikolai Khabibulin.

Niemi made his NHL debut Friday against Pittsburgh, playing the entire third period before allowing the game-winning goal in overtime to Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

Sunday marked his first start in a Blackhawks sweater.

"I think we all had confidence in him," said Dustin Byfuglien, who scored his 11th goal. "We've been rotating goalies all year long, and we know that whoever is in the net is going to give a great battle for us. We never rely on them. It's always a team effort."

The Blackhawks definitely didn't want their rookie goaltender to have to bail them out against Los Angeles. And they made sure that didn't happen.

Niemi had to make few big saves and wasn't tested quite nearly as much as the Kings' Jonathan Quick (34 saves).

"It's his first game and we wanted to play hard for him and limit their chances as much as we could," defenseman Duncan Keith said of Niemi. "He still had some good scoring chances against him and he was there. I thought he was good tonight. He's a big goalie (6-feet-2). and I think he's going to be good."

The Blackhawks gave Niemi a 2-0 cushion early, getting goals from Jonathan Toews and Keith.

It was 3-1 in the final minute of the first period when Niemi allowed Teddy Purcell's close-in shot to squirt through his legs. With Martin Havlat on his back, Anze Kopitar tapped the puck into an open net.

But Niemi protected that 1-goal lead until David Bolland scored in the final minute.

"I think maybe players, if there's a rookie goalie in his first time in net, they play better 'D,' " Niemi said. "They don't let (the opposing team) shoot so much."

"He's worked hard to get to this point and to get this opportunity," Toews said. "We're all happy for him today. He took advantage of his opportunity and played great. We're happy we played well enough in front of him and got him a win, as well."