CHICAGO – Antti Niemi’s days of driving a Zamboni are long gone. Instead of cleaning the ice as he once did in his native Finland to make a few extra bucks, he’s clearing away pucks and hoping to help the Chicago Blackhawks hoist the Stanley Cup.
Niemi made 14 of his 32 saves in the third period and Chicago beat the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 Monday night to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
It was different-styled game from the opener when Niemi let in five goals before the Blackhawks won 6-5.
“I think our ‘D’ played maybe a little bit better in front of the net in blocking shots and letting me see the puck,” Niemi said. “But it’s always a little bit about the luck, too, how you see the puck, and how it bounces.”
Game 2 was different from the outset.
Defenses were tightened. Bodies were flying and tempers flaring. There was one striking similarity – Chicago’s young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane again failed to account for a point.
It was Niemi’s last-period performance that really brought the raucous crowd to its feet when the Flyers couldn’t score in the final 1:44 after pulling goalie Michael Leighton for an extra attacker. They chanted Niemi’s name and nearly drowned out an on-ice interview.
“It’s unbelievable feeling how the people react,” Niemi said. “Defense was the key.”
Chicago broke the scoreless tie when Marian Hossa and Ben Eager scored 28 seconds apart late in the second period.
And after the Flyers got a power-play goal from Simon Gagne early in the third, Niemi withstood a furious late flurry from the Flyers to preserve Chicago’s seventh straight win.
“I thought their goaltender played extremely well in the third period. We had more than enough looks to tie up that game,” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said.
Games 3 and 4 will be in Philadelphia Wednesday and Friday.
Niemi is 14-4 in the playoffs. Monday night’s win was one of his toughest, especially with the Flyers peppering him late.
He has had the ability to follow a bad game during the playoffs with a good one.
“It’s a great thing that it’s been that way… ,” he said. “But maybe it comes out of how I feel after the bad game or game allowing five or four goals. I don’t know how it happens.”
His teammates have a nickname for the 6-foot-2 Niemi, who at age 26 is playing in his first NHL season.
“We call him the octopus because he’s got arms and legs going everywhere,” Chicago forward Adam Burish said. “He was special tonight. Niemi was unbelievable in that third period. Some of the pucks, I don’t know how he saw them.”
Patrick Sharp fired a shot from the left circle, and after Leighton stopped it and with Chicago’s Troy Brouwer battling for the puck, Hossa poked it in from the left side with 2:51 left in the second. Hossa, in his third straight Stanley Cup finals with a different team, got his third goal of the playoffs and first since May 5.
“It bugged me definitely,” Hossa said of his goal drought. “I tried not to get frustrated but I was waiting for something. Like I said, a garbage goal.”
Gagne nearly chipped in a tying rebound about 7 minutes later, but was denied by Niemi.
Trying to get more punch, the Flyers started forward Daniel Carcillo, who was a scratch the last three games. Known for his agitating style, Carcillo replaced Gagne to start the game and immediately began to mix things up. He took a run at Chicago’s Tomas Kopecky, missed and inadvertently flattened linemate Jeff Carter.
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