06/10/2010 9:37 AM - From chicagoblackhawks.com: (link)
PHILADELPHIA – With the tidal wave of quality NHL goalies coming out of Finland, it was only a matter of time before one of them became the first Finnish goalie to win the Stanley Cup.
The odds on it being Antti Niemi, however, were far more uncertain.
Wednesday night, the long shot paid off in stunning fashion as Niemi made 21 saves -- including a game-saving stop against Claude Giroux in the first minute of overtime of Game 6 -- to lead Chicago to its first Stanley Cup title in 49 years.
Less than four minutes after that stop on Giroux -- and an ensuing save on a screened slap shot from Kimmo Timonen -- Chicago forward Patrick Kane scored the Cup-winning goal to seal a dramatic 4-3 sudden-death victory at the Wachovia Center.
In the process, Niemi became a part of history as the first Finnish goalie to claim hockey's biggest prize.
"I tried not to think about it, but of course it is unbelievable," Niemi told NHL.com as he broke a celebratory embrace with his wife, Jonna, at center ice. "There have been two guys in the Final before, and it's unbelievable being the first one because I haven't been the best goalie."
Actually, he wasn't even in the conversation. Finland picked its best three goalies to represent the country when the Olympics rolled around in February. Niemi didn't make the cut -- Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, Minnesota's Nicklas Backstrom and Nashville's Tampa Bay's Antero Niittymaki were the chosen ones, with Nashville's Pekka Rinne also getting serious consideration.
Yet Niemi outlasted them all this season. Kiprusoff had a chance to win the Cup back in 2004, but his Flames lost a seven-game series to the Lightning. Two years later, Edmonton's Jussi Markkanen also had a chance to become the first Finnish goalie to the hoist the Cup, but his Oilers lost a seven-game Final to Carolina.
Niemi refused to follow that script Wednesday night, though.
"I'm happier than I have ever been," Niemi told NHL.com. "I never saw this coming. I think we have an unbelievable team. Our guys did a great job coming back."
While Niemi thinks that Chicago was an incredible team, many of the players believe Niemi to be a pretty incredible goalie since the rookie stole the starting job from Cristobal Huet late in the regular season, despite both Niemi's legion of critics and his pedestrian postseason numbers.
Niemi finished with a .910 save percentage, a number that was bettered by four other goalies, including fellow Finn Tuukka Rask from Boston and Cup Final losing goalie, Michael Leighton. His 2.63 goals-against average was sixth-best in the postseason.
"I never cared too much what anybody thought," Niemi said when asked about his critics. "I'm just happy we were able to do this."
In the end, none of his so-called "sift" numbers mattered -- he was the only goalie in the tournament to get to the most important number of all: 16 wins.
"He was unbelievable," said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who skated off with the Conn Smythe Trophy. "So many tough moments (for him) -- even in Game 1 of our series against Nashville, people questioning (him) every single game as a rookie goaltender. Everybody knows how important it is to have a great goaltender in the postseason.
"Everyone questions experience and his ability to deal with that pressure, but I think we all believed in him. We all knew he was that type of guy. He just kept playing and enjoyed the game. He was a huge, huge part of our team."
Now, Niemi will be a huge part of Finnish hockey lore.
"It's been a very long time for Finnish goalies to get involved in the NHL generally, but right now, the first winner is huge," Finnish TV commentator Jussi Saarninen told NHL.com. "Winning as the first Finnish goalie is a big thing. All the hockey people back home, they really, really give a big credit to Antti Niemi.
"Maybe he doesn't have the personality of a Teemu Selanne, a Jere Lehtinen or a Saku Koivu for example, but, you know, I'm sure right now he is the most celebrated Finnish player in hockey back home."