Antti Niemi of the Chicago Blackhawks is becoming the Cecil Fielder of playoff goalies. (Save your Brodeur/waistline jokes, please.) He's grand slam or whiff, feast or famine.
In his four wins, Niemi has given up seven goals on 105 shots; in his four losses, he's surrendered 11 goals on 84 shots. From Jesse Campigotto of CBC Sports, who reminds us that this inconsistency isn't exclusive to the postseason:
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 4.5 minutes over the next 22:30 to turn it into a blowout and send the 'Hawks goalie to an early shower.
Again, this might be panic, yank-the-goalie time for any other team
coached by Bruce Boudreau facing a tough opponent in a conference semifinal. But Chicago's always understood Niemi better than anyone else. Efforts that may have caused some to question his status as starter were brushed off with nary a concern. His Game 1 flop against the Vancouver Canucks earned a little more scrutiny than usual, but Coach Joel Quenneville is confident that every down for the rookie has an up, endorsing him as the Game 2 starter:
"I think he's got the nice approach where he's focused. He's got a pretty laid-back attitude as far as moving forward and fighting through it," Quenneville said. "Last night was last night. I think he's just really focused on what he has to do to be successful as a goalie, and moving forward has never been an issue."
Niemi's rebound control was atrocious in Game 1, and the Canucks converged on loose pucks like ants on a half-melted candy bar. Maybe he remedies it; but what if he doesn't? Is there a chance at all we'll see Cristobal Huet start in this series, and for the first time since March 25?
The guess is no, for two reasons. First, because Niemi's never once been the scapegoat in these playoffs and wasn't on Saturday. They win as a team, they lose as a team. Or so it would seem.
Second, it'd be counterproductive. There's always a chance you lose the rookie if you bench him, despite the talk of his mental toughness. And if the Blackhawks are going to play for the Cup, let alone win it, Niemi's shown at least the potential to backstop a champion this season; unlike his teammate, who has given up 54 goals in 18 games since January 1. There may not be a Plan B here.