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posted: 1/19/2010 12:01 AM

Niemi continues to deflect any doubts in net for Hawks

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  • Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi, improving his record to 12-3-1, blocks a shot during Sunday's shootout at Detroit.

      Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi, improving his record to 12-3-1, blocks a shot during Sunday's shootout at Detroit.
    Associated Press

 
 

There obviously was something the Blackhawks saw in Antti Niemi at the end of training camp that led them to decide he deserved the backup goalie job over Corey Crawford.

Niemi didn't have a preseason that was head and shoulders better than Crawford, nor was he particularly dazzling in his first full season in the American Hockey League at Rockford in 2008-09 when he was a little over .500 at 18-14-3.

It helped Niemi that Crawford had a contract where he wasn't required to clear waivers to be sent to the minors, since the Hawks didn't want to risk losing either of them.

The final decision to keep Niemi still was based more on ability than anything else, but the Hawks couldn't have expected this.

Niemi's play has been nothing short of sensational with Sunday's 4-3 win at Detroit improving his record to 12-3-1 with 4 shutouts, a 1.90 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.

"I just think you've got a new guy in the league and everybody's got to see first how he's going to handle it," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "But I love the way he has progressed, his development and how he has handled more opportunity here."

Niemi has embraced his backup role to Cristobal Huet and been ready to play every time Quenneville has needed him.

"He works hard every day with Steph (goalie coach Stephane Waite) and is very diligent in trying to learn the game and how he can improve his technique," Quenneville said.

"It's been a nice progression from a very nice place to start at the beginning of the year, and I like how he's getting better."

Niemi has won some of the Hawks' biggest games in some of the most hostile places, further serving notice of his talent and mental toughness.

• Niemi made 30 saves Nov. 22 to beat Vancouver 1-0 at GM Place, giving the Hawks their third straight win to start the circus road trip.

• Facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins (albeit without an injured Sidney Crosby) Dec. 5 at Mellon Arena, Niemi stopped 32 shots in a 2-1 victory in overtime.

• On Dec. 23 at Joe Louis Arena, Niemi shut out the Red Wings 3-0 in a 33-save performance.

• Back at Joe Louis on Sunday, Niemi was the difference in the Hawks' shootout win, He made 35 saves, his best coming on a Henrik Zetterberg breakaway in the first minute of overtime.

"He's won in some real tough places, Pittsburgh and Vancouver," Quenneville said. "He's big, he's aggressive, and he's quick."

And he's still the backup for now, although you can be sure there is more and more confidence with Quenneville and from within the organization that Niemi can be the No. 1 guy at some point in the future.

Niemi certainly has earned the confidence of his teammates.

"He made some huge saves (Sunday), all game long, really," defenseman Duncan Keith said. "He's quick on his feet and he covers the net pretty quick, down low especially. Some of those saves are big-time saves."

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