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Net result: No goaltending worries for Hawks coach
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff

Blackhawks goalie Anntti Niemi continued to show he might be deserving of even more playing time with Sunday's 4-0 shutout of Tampa Bay, his third whitewash of the season in just seven starts.

 

Associated Press

Niemi is 6-1-1 with a 1.50 goals-against average and .937 save percentage, which ranks second in the NHL behind Buffalo's Ryan Miller.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 12/14/2009 12:55 PM

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A typical practice day for Antti Niemi means getting on the ice early and staying late.

Such is the life of a backup goaltender, but Niemi isn't complaining.

"It's good that we play so many games so even if I'm playing just one of three or one of five it's still almost one a week, which is fine," Niemi said.

Niemi continued to show he might be deserving of even more playing time with Sunday's 4-0 shutout of Tampa Bay, his third whitewash of the season in just seven starts.

Niemi is 6-1-1 with a 1.50 goals-against average and .937 save percentage, which ranks second in the NHL behind Buffalo's Ryan Miller.

While Cristobal Huet hasn't done anything to lose playing time as the Hawks' No. 1 goalie, Niemi is creating a good problem for coach Joel Quenneville.

"We like the situation with the goaltending and how good and consistent it has been," Quenneville said. "We welcome tough decisions.

"Huey is playing a lot, so he's the guy. We're very comfortable with the 1-2. We've got a real busy schedule and Antti is going to get some games here. It's no problem the way we look at it."

Niemi's strong work habits have allowed him to stay sharp even when he doesn't start for a week or longer.

"We works hard in practice - before, during and after," Quenneville said. "He keeps himself ready whether he's off for two weeks or off for a week. It's not an easy job description doing that for the first time, but he keeps himself alert and sharp and ready to go."

Being a backup is new territory for the 26-year-old Niemi, who is too old to be eligible for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Niemi appeared in 38 games at Rockford last season in the American Hockey League and before that never played fewer than 40 games in Finland's top pro league.

"Maybe you have to train a little bit harder (as a backup)," Niemi said. "We do lots of work with the goalie coach (Stephane Waite).

"I try to get a lot of confidence out of practice. If I can be good in practice, I feel I can be good in games, too."

Niemi's teammates see how hard he works between starts and are impressed with what he has done in limited playing time.

"It's amazing," Duncan Keith said. "He's been making great save after great save. We're real confident in him, as well as Huey in net. It shows his mental strength to be able to go in there when he's not playing night after night and play great."

"It's great to have two goaltenders like we have," Brent Seabrook said. "It gives us a lot of confidence as defensemen."

Niemi's quickness is his strength, particularly how he covers the net low.

"He's solid," Quenneville said. "You can see the size and presence in the net. He challenges and his rebound control is in order."

Niemi came to training camp not even knowing he would make the team. There was the tough competition with Corey Crawford for the backup job, which Niemi ultimately won. He solidified the Hawks' decision in the second game of the season in Finland by shutting out Florida in his first start.

"I think we felt going into the year that both Crawford and him had NHL ability," Quenneville said. "And not only that, we felt that with the opportunity to play up here both could develop into No. 1 goalies. He's done everything we were hoping he'd do."