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Niemi made Bowman's decision easy
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff

Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi made the decision not to trade for a goalkeeper in midseason an easy one.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 5/27/2010 8:08 PM

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With the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals and goaltender Antti Niemi helping get them there, general manager Stan Bowman should feel vindicated.

"I don't look at it that way," Bowman said.

It was Bowman who never wavered in his defense of the Hawks' goaltending, even at the March 3 trade deadline when nearly every so-called expert thought there was a need to add a veteran with Niemi relatively inexperienced and Cristobal Huet's game in shambles.

"I understand why people have the questions they did, but we also knew internally what we had," Bowman said. "If you think back to those games when Antti did play, he didn't play a lot early, but when he did play he was getting a shutout like every third start."

Bowman admitted on Thursday that there came a point in December when he and the coaching staff began to feel that Niemi deserved the opportunity to play more and not just to give Huet a rest once a week.

Bowman remembers Niemi's 3-0 shutout at Detroit on Dec. 23, when he made 33 saves, as being particularly eye opening. It was Niemi's fourth shutout in his ninth start.

"It was after the game in Detroit at Christmas time, we were all talking after the game," Bowman said. "He had 4 shutouts and had only played like 11 games, so we're thinking, 'Holy cow, we've got to find a way in the second half to play him a little more,' because he was getting to start like every fourth game.

"But Huet was playing well and our team was playing well, so there was no need to suddenly change course."

However, the course needed serious changing in early February, when Huet began to lose confidence and his game suffered greatly.

Starting Feb. 6 in St. Louis, Niemi became the Hawks' No. 1 goalie even though coach Joel Quenneville never officially anointed him.

Niemi started 19 of the final 25 games and will take a 12-4 playoff record into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Saturday night.

"As things transpired we were not playing that well," Bowman said. "The team in general wasn't playing well and our goaltending was kind of up in the air. That's when we decided to give Antti a little bit more and he just took it and ran with it."

Most goalies who have regular-season numbers like Niemi did don't get their ability questioned, but that wasn't the case with the first-year Finn, for reasons mostly connected with his lack of playoff experience.

Niemi was 26-7-4 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in the regular season.

"You look to the way he played in Finland (in the second game of the season), he was dynamite that game over there," Bowman said. "I remember because all the fans there were saying this was a great goalie because they knew him.

"We said we know he's good, but we didn't know he was quite this good. As he started playing more he showed he's the real deal."