Goaltender Antti Niemi is now the Chicago Blackhawks’ leading candidate to win the 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy. Entering this Stanley Cup Final v. Philadephia, the Blackhawks had several players who would have been a good choice. Niemi has now broken from the pack and, unless something dramatic happens, he’ll be waving the trophy by the end of this weekend.
Let’s assume the Chicago Blackhawks are going to win the Stanley Cup. We assume this because they are. Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews still leads the Stanley Cup Playoffs in scoring with 26 points. But, having had his 13-game point streak snapped in Game One v. the Flyers, Toews has been held pointless in the first two games of the SCF. He’s been a monster in the face-off circle, winning 69% of his draws (33-of-48). But, if he’s to win the Smythe, Toews has to be a more visible contributor for Chicago. Ditto Patrick Kane.
Kane currently ranks fourth in league playoff scoring with 20 points. Kane was also pointless in G1 and G2 at United Center. That puts the spotlight squarely on Antti Niemi. Prior to, and early in, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there were PLENTY of questions surrounding Niemi. Back on April 27th, I wrote about it. http://bigmouthsports.com/2010/04/27/goaltending-in-stanley-cup-playoffs-is-a-crapshoot/#more-267
Forward Dustin Byfuglien was extremely strong in the second and third rounds against the Canucks and Sharks – but Chris Pronger has managed to neutralize him so far in the SCF. In fact, so far in the 2010 SCF, the Toews/Kane/Byfuglien line has one point, 10 shots on goal and a combined -7 rating. Not Conn Smythe numbers.
With the second-ranked team in the West, goaltending was clearly head coach Joel Quenneville’s number-one worry heading into the playoffs. He’s resting much easier now. Niemi has started every single one of Chicago’s 18 playoff games. He’s won 14 of them. He’s won shootouts – like in Game One on Saturday – and he’s recorded two shutouts. His save percentage is .919. Nothing to write home about but he’s kept the Hawks in pretty much every game they’ve played. He let in a goofy goal in G1 v. Nashville but, the only game the Hawks have been out of was G1 v. Vancouver, a 5-1 Chicago loss. Quenneville yanked him that night in favour of Cristobal Huet. And that’s the key to Niemi’s play in 2010.
He keeps the Hawks in every game they play. In fact, that’s about all you an ever ask of a netminder. Oh, you want him to win a few on his own but, hey, just keep us close. And, if he wins the Conn Smythe Trophy, he’d be the first player from Finland to receive the honour. Even Edmonton Oilers’ sniper Jari Kurri never won the Smythe – although he should have in 1985.
That year, Kurri tied the Stanley Cup Playoff record with 19 goals in the postseason, including an astounding twelve as the Oilers obliterated Denis Savard’s Hawks in the Campbell Conference Final. The Conn Smythe went to Wayne Gretzky. Never a bad choice but, in this case, perhaps Gretzky and Kurri should have shared the award. Gretzky assisted on 15 of Kurri’s goals that postseason.
But, this year, Finland will get what it’s due – about 25 years too late. Antti Niemi already has one hand on Conn.