CHICAGO — During his mandatory stint in the Finnish army, Antti Niemi was responsible for an anti-aircraft gun.
“I drove a truck,” said the Chicago Blackhawks goalie of his six-month duty years ago. “We had the cannon on the truck behind me to shoot at planes. We didn’t really shoot it, but we were trained to shoot it.”
The Blackhawks had better hope their twine-minder learned how to reload.
Actually, the same can be said for their whole squad.
On the heels of Saturday’s disastrous opener — a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks — the heat is on Niemi to rebound when the series resumes Monday at the United Center.
Make no mistake, he’s not alone. The 18 skaters disguised as the Blackhawks in that debacle have some explaining to do, too, after being made to look like a beer-league squad by the Canucks in a result nobody saw coming.
But the man sitting in the crosshairs in the Windy City is the one who took the starter’s reins from the grossly overpaid Cristobal Huet (whose salary is US$5.625 million this season; Neimi’s is US$827,000.)
By no means is Niemi solely to blame for Saturday’s Meltdown in the Madhouse on Madison, but everybody knows goalkeeping is Chicago’s Achilles heel, and he didn’t dispel the theory while surrendering five goals on 25 shots before receiving the hook after two periods.
Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo did a perfect job of holding off the home squad’s first-period push and stopped 36 shots in the opener. Niemi had to match and didn’t.
Whether it was being beat by a floater from the point, which Christian Ehrhoff fired past a screen, or providing a better kick than a Rockette on Mason Raymond’s back-breaker with 10.5 seconds left in the first period, Niemi wasn’t up to snuff.
Still, the Blackhawks aren’t for a second pondering turning back to Huet.
“Antti’s playing, no doubt,” head coach Joel Quenneville emphatically stated Sunday. “He’s played very well for us down the stretch. We like the way he played consecutive games, went on a nice roll there. He played a very good series against Nashville and he was fine … I think it was easy to make a change going into the third period to get him rested and get him excited.”
For what it’s worth, Niemi twice bounced back from defeat in the first-round series against Nasvhille by posting a shutout.
“He’s done a great job all year and he’ll regroup,” defenceman Brent Sopel said. “I know he’s got a good mental side of the game, he’s pretty calm and doesn’t wrap himself up too tight.”
Niemi isn’t alone in needing to elevate his play when the clubs return to action.
The official statistics shouldn’t fool anybody, the Hawks were manhandled.
The shots were 37-28 for Chicago and hits were
37-27 in the Blackhawks favour, but from the drop of the puck, Vancouver was more engaged, more determined, more willing to pay the price.
“It’s about preparing ourselves and being a heck of a lot better tomorrow night than we were in Game 1,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “For the most part, we weren’t willing to work extra hard to get in the right positions and to support each other.”
In short, watch for Niemi and the rest of the Blackhawks to be looking for amends.
“We know how important Game 1 is, especially against these guys, but other series we’ve been in, we’ve lost the first one and managed to bounce back,” Hawks centre Patrick Sharp said. “It’s not the ideal situation, but we’re not going to hang our heads — we’re going to be ready for Game 2.”