If Antti Niemi can keep his hot hand for two more wins, there will be few arguments about who should win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the NHL playoffs.
Those who know the Chicago Blackhawks goaltender best say such is the state of his confidence and his game that they have no doubt he can do it.
"We needed Niemi to play that way in these playoffs," Blackhawks centre John Madden said. "He's done it so far. He's been great and I don't see him letting up at all."
Not bad for a fellow who started the 2009-10 season as the backup to Cristobal Huet and came within an eyelash of not being on the team at all. On the eve of the regular season, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and his staff had to pick either Niemi or Corey Crawford to be Huet's backup.
Crawford, 25, was supposed to be the prime prospect. Niemi, 27, was a comparative unknown. The Finnish rookie split the job on the farm team with Crawford in 2008-09 after signing as a free agent, but at that point all Bowman had to go on was the feeling Niemi just might turn out to be special.
"It was close," Bowman told ESPN.com. "But the one thing we all talked about is that Antti had the potential to be a star. We thought if we gave him that opportunity, he might become what we had hoped. And sure enough, he's exceeded that."
Niemi's star did not rise overnight. First he had to wait for head coach Joel Quenneville to tire of Huet's struggles. The unassuming, quiet native of Vantaa, Finland, then nailed down the job, finishing the season with a 27-6-4 record, 2.25 goals against average and .912 save percentage.
When the playoffs started, the doubters were back. Niemi had no playoff experience and still had the odd flop during the regular season. But in the past two months, he has outplayed two of the top goaltenders in the NHL, Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks and Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks.
Niemi still had the occasional bad game in the playoffs but his most remarkable quality is his ability to bounce back. He did it again this week, coming back from a mediocre outing in Chicago's 6-5 win in the opener of the Stanley Cup final. He slammed the door on the Flyers in Game 2, holding off a furious rally in the last half of the game for a 2-1 win and 2-0 series lead.
The Flyers' inability to solve Niemi may be why head coach Peter Laviolette fired a dart his way on Tuesday.
"We've got to put more pressure on their goaltender," Laviolette said. "He's a rookie goaltender playing in the Stanley Cup finals. We have to get on the board here [Wednesday]night and put a little bit of doubt there.
"Our team is capable of scoring a lot of goals, putting a lot of pressure on him. It's a tough position, goaltending. He's representing a city that hasn't won a Cup in 50 years. We have to give him a crack of doubt. We can do that [Wednesday]night."
Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville declined to address Laviolette's remarks but said Niemi's calm disposition, far from the norm for NHL goaltenders, is why he can handle the Stanley Cup run with no playoff experience.
"His demeanour is the way you'd like it to be in any type of situation," the coach said. "But goaltenders are sometimes a little more higher strung. Antti is as laidback as I've ever met or seen, and I think his disposition enables him just to move on to the next situation and the next challenge and the next puck. I think that makes him effective."
Niemi, too, is supremely confident right now. His teammates say that is the key to his blistering run through the postseason - 14 wins, a 2.40 GAA and a .919 save percentage. Niemi agrees that mentally he is a long way from where he started the season.
"Well, it's like night and day," he said. "It's a huge difference and I think that's the biggest reason why I can play this well right now."
Niemi's teammates shrugged off Laviolette's challenge, saying nothing is likely to get in his head now.
"He doesn't let much bother him, at least nothing that we can see," defenceman Brent Sopel said. "He's pretty quiet in the room. He does his own thing and makes big saves.
"Teams have tried to get at him. You know, he's really answered the bell. I don't think he lets that stuff get to him. He just continues to play his game."Report Typo/Error