The ups and downs of Antti Niemi
"Consistency" is a word you hear a lot in hockey. Players want it from themselves and from their teammates; coaches want it from their players; and everyone wants it from the referees.
What they really mean is they want everyone to be good all the time.
Antti Niemi is good. Just not all the time. He's not consistent. And that's what makes him interesting.
Niemi, the rookie No. 1 goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks, can be very good sometimes. His seven shutouts in the regular season were tied for the third-most in the NHL, and he did it in a remarkably efficient 35 starts. That's 27 fewer starts, on average, than the three other goalies who posted seven shutouts. It's 41 fewer than Martin Brodeur, who had a league-leading nine blankings.
But Niemi can also be bad sometimes. As often as he holds opposing skaters off the scoreboard, the 26-year-old Finn is just as likely to bomb. His seven shutouts were mitigated by the eight occasions on which he gave up four goals or more.
This boom-or-bust tendency has extended into the playoffs, where in seven games Niemi has a pair of shutouts (both in the first round against Nashville) along with three games in which he allowed at least four goals.
The latest, and probably most troubling, stinker came on Saturday night, when Niemi hacked up five goals on 25 shots as the Blackhawks were pounded 5-1 on home ice by the Vancouver Canucks in the opener of their second-round series.
Niemi looked OK for the first 13 minutes, keeping the game scoreless, but Vancouver averaged a goal every 4½ minutes over the next 22:30 to turn it into a blowout and send the 'Hawks goalie to an early shower.
Cristobal Huet, the man Niemi supplanted as Chicago's top netminder, came on in relief for the final period and stopped each of the paltry three shots he faced as the Canucks sat on their huge lead.
But don't read anything into that. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said during the off day ahead of Game 2 that "Antti's playing. No doubt."
Those are the words of someone who's accustomed to Niemi's ups and downs, and who's got 10 NHL playoff campaigns under his coaching belt. Quenneville is not going to panic. He knows that his goalie may very well bounce back with a shutout on Monday night.
Quenneville also knows how unpalatable his alternative is: Huet, generally regarded as a playoff underachiever, posted a horrendous .895 save percentage this season, third-worst in the league among qualifying goalies.
So it looks like Niemi is the guy. For better or worse.