Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: Antti answers the call

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Hawk Talk: Antti answers the call

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
11:39 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

CHICAGO Its easy to envision a future Deadspin lead story, one about an ascendant superstar goalie who sneaks up on the NHL and sets it on its ear, all the while never informing his parents or friends in Finland how hes finding his fortune in the United States.

As ludicrous as it sounds, Antti Niemiand apparently, his friends and familyis so even-keeled, such a story might just be true, and that for all anyone knows back home, hes simply found consistent work as a house painter or electrician and isnt a young man four wins from backstopping his way to a Stanley Cup, and turning the longest Cup drought in the NHLs books today soaking wet.

No, Im not really talking to anybody in Finland, Niemi said. My friends dont really want to mess me up, they want to keep me focused. Even my parents, we just talk about regular things, not hockey.

While this may stun those of us who would be sneaking excited phone calls or texts from the dressing room during intermissions during such a stellar playoff run, Niemi seems to have found the antidote to anxiety. Hes the coolest customer in the dressing room who just happens to man the most nerve-wracking position.
I just move on to the next thing, good or bad, Niemi said. A goal, I focus about the next puck. A save, I focus on the next puck. A win, I focus on the next game.

Maybe some of it has to do with Niemis expectations for the season. Back in September, there were none. I was just trying to make the team, he said of his battle for the backup role with the preordained No. 2, Corey Crawford.

His teammates didnt exactly welcome himhe was mostly an unknown, after all. His halting English didnt make matters much easier, although veteran netminder Cristobal Huet, himself a non-native English speaker, made life easier for the young backstop. He formed a fast bond with a fellow young Scandinavian player, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Niemi tossed a shutout in his first start of the season, the Blackhawks second game of the year, in front of his home fans in Helsinki (the netminders hometown of Vantaa is a suburb of the Finnish capital). Every time out, if he wasnt getting better, he was certainly proving himself an NHL-caliber goalie.

He just kept putting great performances in the books for us, Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. Through a variety of challenges, he came out looking good.

All year, Anttis had our backs, Chicago center Dave Bolland said. We know hes going to take care of us.

In reality, the starting job was never Niemis to win, but Huets to lose. As the veteran struggled, treading water all season, Niemi continued to grow and learnand occasionally put on a mind-boggling performance, like his 1-0 shutout in Vancouver over the Canucks on Nov. 22, a 2-1 overtime win in Pittsburgh vs. the Penguins on Dec. 5, or a 4-3 shootout win in Detroit to upend the Red Wings on Jan. 21.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has described Niemi in a number of colorful and awestruck ways, the best of which is the strangely appropriate laid-backish. The mentor has consistently praised the rookies demeanor, and unflappability.

His presence has been key for us, Quenneville said. Hes done pretty much whatever weve asked of him. His consistency, his ability to repeat success and eliminate mistakes, has contributed to his confidence and we on the team benefit from that.

Interestingly, the least experienced player on the active roster is one of the most calm and confident, even as the games increase in tension and payoff.

I am feeling more confident than ever, Niemi admits, with some goading. But that is the sort of thing that I put away, right away.

The budding star has also admitted during this playoff run that hes aware hes becoming an elite NHL goaltender. But again, such thoughts are stored away. Ill think about that in the summer, he said. Until then, it doesnt matter anyway.

One of the simple gifts of this storied Chicago season has been watching this backstop blossom, slowly gaining confidence, both on the ice and in dressing room interviews. Seeing him chat with a reporter in his native tongue while in Vancouver, this reticent and stoic player suddenly grinning widely and gesturing in all manner of Jimmie Walker and John Belushi, was revelatory.

The young fella is no different from any of us, aside from making his living off of beating back rubber slabs shot his way at upwards of 100 mph, and bringing a little Clint Eastwood braggadocio to the ice as he flips the pucks back at the offense as if to ask if thats all its got.

Its rare that the unflappable Finn flops on the ice, and barely more so hell even admit to any tension. Those times, you have to bronze and store away, like when Niemi talks about how hard it is, win or lose, to get to sleep after a game, replaying it over in his mind. Likewise when he admitted that Game 3s overtime period vs. the San Jose Sharks was so tense I didnt even realize right away the game was over after Dustin Byfugliens game-winner, or that after Big Buffs eventual game-winner in Game 4 Niemi couldnt even recall how much time was left on the clock (10 minutes? Three minutes? I cannot even remember, but I was hoping the clock would go much faster.).

There are even those moments of awe, where you wonder whether any of this has sunk in on Niemi, who admitted in full candor that Ive dreamed of the Stanley Cup since I was seven, but that dream seemed too far away to even be a dream.

Well, Niemi is certainly living that dream today. And, Mr. or Mrs. Niemi back in Vantaa, if youre reading, your son isnt a successful plumber or painter herehes manning the pads and saying NO! to the best Blackhawks opponents the NHL has to offer.

Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Takeaways from first three days of Blackhawks training camp

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Chicago Blackhawks

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Takeaways from first three days of Blackhawks training camp

On the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle and Charlie Roumeliotis break down the first three days of training camp.

Which players have stood out so far and how will the injuries to Kirby Dach and Calvin de Haan impact the final roster?

The guys also discuss Jonathan Toews being motivated by an NHL Network snub and their feelings about the relationship between Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner.

0:45 - Fan support at Training Camp Festival 

1:45 - Impressions of Wedin-Toews-Nylander line

2:35 - Olli Maatta getting offensive 

4:00 - Aleksi Saarela impact

5:00 - Andrew Shaw at center

6:00 - Will Kris Versteeg get another spin with Blackhawks?

7:45 - Optimism at camp

10:15 - Kirby Dach injury

12:00 - What are Dach’s chances of making the team?

14:00 - Will Calvin de Haan be ready for season opener?

17:15 - Jeremy Colliton teaching D-zone 

19:00 - Adam Boqvist chances of making the team? 

20:15 - Jonathan Toews motivated by snub

24:15 - Crawford-Lehner relationship 

28:45 - Importance of three preseason games in three days

Listen to the entire episode here or in the embedded player below.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast

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Blackhawks using first training camp under Jeremy Colliton to nail down defensive zone coverage

Blackhawks using first training camp under Jeremy Colliton to nail down defensive zone coverage

Jeremy Colliton has been the Blackhawks' head coach for more than 10 months now, but this is his first training camp with the team and he's able to instill some concepts that he wasn't able to do on the fly last season. The biggest thing, however, is that he was afforded a full summer to prep and can help get everyone on the same page during training camp and in the seven preseason games before the games actually matter.

"It's important," Duncan Keith said. "Systems nowadays, with the way teams are, it's important that everyone's on the same page. Having a training camp with the coaches and being able to implement the system and try to get on the same page early on, the quicker we can iron out everything the better off we're going to be."

The one area the Blackhawks have focused on heavily over the first two days is the defensive zone coverage. They gave up the most scoring chances and high-danger chances at 5-on-5 last season, and the team got better at it in the final month or so but it's still a work in progress.

"It's going to be huge," Patrick Kane said. "Even [Friday], first day we're running through some defensive coverage trying to get everything done tactically. I'm sure we'll do a little bit more of that each day and some different things as well. It'll be real beneficial for us just to all get on the same page, set the standard around here and feel confident about our team, the way we play going into the season."

The onus isn't just on the defensemen, either. It's a five-man unit and training camp is just as much about building trust with your teammates and being in the right spot as it is nailing down the scheme and letting it become muscle memory.

"We've all got to be on the same page," Brent Seabrook said. "If my D partner's doing it perfectly and I'm not, then we're not going to be any good at it. We've all got to be on the same page, we've all got to be doing our job and doing the right thing and the faster we get to that point, then I think it's just going to help us out in the long run. We're just going to keep getting better at it and we'll go from there."

The Blackhawks are going to continue working on their defensive zone coverage as camp goes along because that’s priority No. 1. Scoring goals won’t be an issue. And after Sunday’s training camp festival at the United Center, the Blackhawks have three consecutive preseason contests to apply what they've learned in a game-type setting.

"I just think getting guys on the same page as quickly as we can, that's really important,” Colliton said. “You saw there was a lot of D-zone work today [Friday]. That'll continue and we'll just sort of roll out how we're going to play day-by-day so that we're ready. We got that festival game, that will kind of be a dress rehearsal and then right into it."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.