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Hawks vs. Predators: Expect a fight to the Finnish
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff

The counterpart to Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi will be another playoff first-timer, Pekka Rinne.


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Published: 4/13/2010 12:00 AM

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Because the first-round playoff series between the Blackhawks and Nashville doesn't start until Friday, it's going to provide plenty of time for the various matchups to be dissected from all angles.

Many would agree maybe the key matchup is in goal where the battle of the Finnish goaltenders takes place between the Hawks' Antti Niemi and Nashville's Pekka Rinne.

It's a tough matchup to handicap because both goalies are without playoff experience, but people will try.

"If you view the tale of the tape, Rinne probably has better credentials than Niemi," NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire said on Monday. "Which goaltender can stand up and deliver?"

The numbers for Niemi and Rinne this season aren't really much different.

Rinne was 32-16-5 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.

Niemi finished 26-7-4 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.

Predators coach Barry Trotz admitted his team knows little about Niemi since he faced Nashville only once this season.

"To be honest, we haven't even broke him down yet," Trotz said. "He has a little bit of a butterfly style and he has quite a good record."

Niemi seized the No. 1 job by the throat down the stretch and answered every question outside of how he is going to handle the pressure of the playoffs.

"So that dress rehearsal you called the season, this guy has passed all the tests," said Glenn Healy, Hockey Night in Canada analyst and a former goaltender. "It's not by fluke. It's because he's passed them. He's done it. He's got the skill. Now he's got to transpose that into the postseason.

"Every goaltender at some point gets an opportunity in the postseason to really make a name for themselves and really to set a standard and to make history. And this is his opportunity. You've had other goaltenders in the past with bigger names that have had Stanley Cup rings, particularly (Nikolai) Khabibulin, and that match hasn't worked. So you get a chance now with a young guy who is going to paint the canvas and write the script."

Healy sees the Hawks more as a complete team than one that needs to get great goaltending to get past the first round and go far in the playoffs.

"You look at their club, they are a 112-point team," Healy said. "That's a pretty darn good team. Their goals-against is sparkling: 209 goals against. Those are incredible stats."

Rinne started only three of the six games against the Hawks during the regular season and went 1-2, with that victory being a 2-0 shutout on Oct. 29 in Nashville.

"He's a big goalie," Hawks winger Patrick Kane said. "We'll have to get to him pretty quick as far as getting a lot of shots on him."

Most analysts agree that this series isn't going to be a walk in the park for the Hawks.

"Chicago has the edge because they have a little more pure offense than Nashville," NBC's McGuire said. "It should be more of a difficult series for them than people think. Nashville is going to give them some trouble."

The Hawks know the hard-working Predators too well to take them lightly.

"You can'tlook past anybody in the first round," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "But it doesn't really matter who we play. It's all about how we play now."