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Hawks must stay patient vs. defensive-minded foe
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff

Antti Niemi doesn't say much and still has difficulty understanding the language, but the Blackhawks first-year Finnish goalie doesn't need an interpreter to understand he's about to play the biggest games of his career.

 

Associated Press file

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Published: 4/15/2010 8:23 PM | Updated: 4/16/2010 12:41 PM

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Antti Niemi doesn't say much and still has difficulty understanding the language, but the Blackhawks first-year Finnish goalie doesn't need an interpreter to understand he's about to play the biggest games of his career.

All eyes will be on Niemi Friday night when the Hawks and Nashville Predators open their first-round playoff series at the United Center.

Niemi said he was both excited and nervous to be making his playoff debut.

"I'm nervous before a regular-season game, but I think I can handle it," Niemi said Thursday. "It wouldn't be good if I wasn't excited or nervous. I just want to focus on my game like every other game.

"There's been lots of goalies who haven't had playoff experience before they played playoffs."

Niemi said he doesn't read the newspapers or listen to the radio to see and hear about all the pressure others think is on his shoulders.

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville believes Niemi's quiet demeanor is one of his strengths.

"What you see is what you get," Quenneville said. "The way his disposition, his demeanor is, that's him. The pace is going to be harder and faster, but at the same time his approach shouldn't change at all and that's what we like about him."

The Hawks know this isn't going to be an easy series against a gritty Nashville team that won 47 games and earned 100 points.

"Defense is probably their strength, but they've got three lines that can probably score and an energy line that can check," Quenneville said. "They're probably underrated in how their offense is, but certainly they play a real strong team game that can frustrate you. Checking and being patient and playing the score is going to be important."

The Hawks would be making a mistake if they get away from playing a patient game.

"Give them credit, they stick to their system every night really well and that's what makes them successful," Hawks defenseman Brent Sopel said. "We have to play a smart game. We can't get frustrated and turn the puck over. They feed off turnovers and find a way to make you pay for those mistakes."

The Predators are 0-10 in road playoff games and realize they'll be coming into a hornet's nest at the United Center where the Hawks were 29-8-4 this season.

"They're going to be jacked up," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "Their crowd and the noise factor's going to be extremely high. They're probably a fairly significant favorite in some ways, but at the same time we're going to go in and play our game.

"We've got to control our emotions and execute our system. When things are all noisy and people are flying around, your security blanket is your system."

Like Niemi, Predators goalie Pekka Rinne hasn't appeared in a playoff game, but he has had a solid season.

Nashville's strength isn't in its special teams with the power play ranking 24th and its penalty killing 28th.

The Hawks' power play has a lot of weapons but still has struggled, especially at home, where it ranked next to last.

The power play was just 6-for-61 in the last 18 games.

"It comes down to bearing down and playing with even more energy once we do get a power play," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "Whether you score a goal or not you've got to try and generate some energy off those two minutes. We've worked at it all week and I think we're ready to be better."

Line combinations

Predators

Left wing - Center - Right wing

Colin Wilson - Jason Arnott - Martin Erat

Steve Sullivan - Marcel Goc - Patric Hornqvist

J.P. Dumont - David Legwand - Joel Ward

Jerred Smithson - Dustin Boyd - Jordin Tootoo

Defense pairings

Ryan Suter - Shea Weber

Dan Hamhuis - Cody Franson

Francis Bouillon - Kevin Klein

Blackhawks

Left wing - Center - Right wing

Patrick Sharp - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa

Troy Brouwer - Dave Bolland - Patrick Kane

Andrew Ladd - John Madden - Kris Versteeg

Ben Eager - Colin Fraser - Tomas Kopecky

Defense pairings

Duncan Keith -- Dustin Byfuglien

Niklas Hjalmarsson -- Brent Seabrook

Jordan Hendry - Brent Sopel