His name was engraved on the Stanley Cup as a 26-year-old rookie, who had helped carry the Chicago Blackhawks to the team’s first championship in a half-century. On the way to that victory, the Vancouver Canucks were one of the squads Antti Niemi overcame – but the Canucks, the next year in 2011, after Niemi had moved to ply his trade in California, solved the Finnish puzzle, and soundly defeated the San Jose Sharks and Niemi to win the Western Conference.
So this spring’s meeting of the Sharks and Canucks is something of a grudge match. But this version of Antti Niemi is not quite one the Canucks, or anyone else, has seen before, a more mature, older – 29 – and more powerful netminder, 6-foot-2 and spry and a serious contender for the Vézina trophy. While there has been a forest of trees sacrificed to tell tales of Vancouver’s Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo – and it is again Luongo who will start Game 2 on Friday after the Canucks lost Game 1 on Wednesday – the man in the San Jose crease is the one netminder who might well decide this first-round series.
“Their team,” Schneider said on Monday of the Niemi and the Sharks, “starts with him.”
The 2013 Niemi is the athlete who has emerged when no one was looking. In the long off-season, extended by the lockout, Niemi worked to reinforce his game, by cementing his body.
Last season, before the 2011-12 campaign began, Niemi had a cyst removed near one of his knees. It had not really affected his game but it definitely hampered his ability to work in the gym. But there was little time to worry about that, with the season on, and it was a harried winter and the Sharks were out in the first round.
The long furlough that preceded the truncated 2013 season gave Niemi, finally, time to work. Among his moves was to bring over a mentor from his junior days in the Helsinki suburb where he grew up, importing some Finnish wisdom for a month of work in San Jose. Some key training was core work – no pucks. Niemi pushed through skating drills – “all-around skating” – holding a 15-kilogram plate in front of his abs, left hand and right hand, like a shield. It was an idea his old coach had a decade ago but Niemi wasn’t interested then.
“It’s for your core,” Niemi said on Thursday, between games in Vancouver. “When you go down, sliding, if your balance is not good, you’re going to fall.”
He is a better goaltender than when he won the Cup. “Just being more confident, more relaxed,” Niemi said of his evolution. “A lot better in a lot of different things, better mentally, better technically.”
The effort is one reason Niemi vaulted to the elite among NHL goaltenders, when he played the most minutes of anyone, and tied for the league lead in wins. The prowess was in full evidence in Vancouver on Wednesday night, as Niemi helped lead one of the worst road teams in the playoffs to a significant Game 1 win.
One of Vancouver’s problems, without doubt, was getting true pressure on Niemi. In the third period, for instance, with the score tied 1-1, as the Canucks folded, Vancouver did not really even register a true scoring chance on Niemi. The only goal he yielded, in the second, was basically an own goal in a melee from the hands of the Sharks’ Raffi Torres.
“Traffic, traffic, traffic,” said Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin of how to beat Niemi – after ruing his own hesitation with a big open look at the goaltender on a power play in the second without making a move. “You’re not going to be beat any goalie in this league coming down the wing and shooting, that’s impossible.”
Vancouver, again, faces the disaster of blowing two games at home, for the second consecutive spring. The team knows where it stands, backs against the wall, already, so early in a potential two-month playoff tournament. “I need more from my whole team,” coach Alain Vigneault said. Sedin stated, “We know it’s a huge, huge game for us.”
The Finn, a veteran three years removed from a rookie hoisting the Cup, is poised.
“They’re going to come,” Niemi said, “hard, early.”