Niemi proves he can handle lots of shots

CHICAGO -- Making the story of Antti Niemi's rise to stardom seem so improbable is the amount of saves he had to make to win two of the four games in the Western Conference Final.

After going the entire season, 39 appearances to be exact, without facing 40 shots in a single game, Niemi saw 45 shots in Games 1 and 46 in Game 3. He made 88 saves and allowed only three goals while winning both games.

"You look at any team that kicks around in the playoffs, it's goaltending," center John Madden said. "Niemi has been great for us and we needed that."

Prior to turning aside 44 shots in Game 1 against the Sharks, Niemi's career-high for saves in a single game was 35 on Jan. 17 in a 4-3 shootout victory at Detroit. Because Chicago was the stingiest team in the NHL in terms of shots against per game, Niemi faced 30 or more shots only 13 times this season, or 33 percent of the time he played.

However, San Jose was bringing it against the Hawks, particularly in Games 1 and 3, but still couldn't solve Niemi. By the end of the series, the Sharks couldn't blame themselves for failing to score more than seven goals on Niemi.

For three games they talked about missed opportunities because they weren't getting shots through, shooting high or getting Niemi leaning. After Game 4, all they could do was tip their caps to the goalie that beat them.

"They seemed very destined right now," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said of the Hawks. "They have a goaltender that's on fire."

Niemi actually caught fire well before the playoffs began. He had three shutouts and another two one-goal games after the Olympic break. He was 6-0-1 down the stretch, allowing more than two goals in only two of those seven games.

In the postseason, he's 12-4 with a 2.33 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and two shutouts. Both of his shutouts came after a loss in the first-round series against Nashville. Of his seven shutouts in the regular season, four came after a loss.

"As time went along, he gradually was gaining pretty good trust in the whole team," Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "Now, obviously, everybody has a ton of confidence in him."

Keith couldn't say he sensed this kind of run was coming from Niemi, but did say he knew two years ago that the Finn would probably be a pretty darn good goalie in this League.

"I remember watching an exhibition game two years ago, and I think that was his first time playing in a game. We were in Dallas," Keith recalled. "He stopped about two or 5-on-3s and I remember thinking, 'This guy is a pretty good goaltender. I don't know where we found him. There's no hype about him.'

"You've seen that before in a lot of European players and goalies, where they don't have a whole lot of hype, whether they're a late-round pick or free agent signing, and they seem to do pretty well."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl