Vancouver Canucks\' Sami Salo, center, tries to clear Chicago Blackhawks Dustin Byfuglien, right, from in front of the Canucks net as goalie Roberto Luongo looks on during first period of Game 6 in an NHL hockey Western Conference playoff series in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, May 11, 2010. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)
CHICAGO - When Antti Niemi was working as a goalie for a second division team in Finland, he made extra money by driving the Zamboni at a local rink.
"That's how he paid his bills," recalled Bill Zito, his Chicago-based agent.
Niemi has come a long, long way in the past decade. Now 26 and in his first full season with the Chicago Blackhawks, he's trying to backstop one of the NHL's Original Six franchises to its first Stanley Cup championship since 1961—22 years before he was born.
After stints in the Finnish army and the leagues of his homeland, Niemi has watched his life change dramatically in the last two years since signing with the Blackhawks as a free agent.
"It's come fast, pretty fast," Niemi said just before the playoffs began.
Not a highly regarded prospect in his country, a Blackhawks scout spotted him in a top Finnish league and then former Chicago general manager Dale Tallon signed him on May 5, 2008.
After spending most of last season with Rockford of the AHL, Niemi won what was expected to be the backup job to Cristobal Huet. But Niemi made the most of his chances when he did play, posted seven shutouts and took over as the starting goalie for good in mid-March.
His play has helped the Blackhawks return to the Western Conference finals, where they will open the series at San Jose on Sunday. He's already faced off against countryman Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators and Roberto Luongo of the Canucks, two goalies with higher profiles and much bigger contracts. Niemi is making $827,000 this season.
Zito called Niemi a "handy guy," saying that when the goalie's iPhone needed a replacement part recently Niemi didn't want to take it in for repairs. He wanted to order the parts and try and fix it himself.
That same approach can be seen on the ice. The Blackhawks lost the first game in each of their first two series—Niemi was actually pulled after two periods during a 5-1 loss to Vancouver in the opener of the semifinals—but every time Chicago has dropped a game in these playoffs, he fixed it and rebounded with a victory.
"First game I saw him was an exhibition game. I was in Dallas as a scout and watching him play, he put on an amazing performance that game. I think he stopped about three or four 5-on-3s in the middle of the game and went on to get the win," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.
"We like his progress. He's got size, presence and he's got a great demeanour. A nice approach to the game, a nice approach after being scored on and looking ahead. ... I think he's a student of the game as well. We think he's adapted to situations well."
The six-foot-two Niemi didn't face San Jose this season when Chicago won three of the four meetings.
The Sharks' approach sounds familiar.
"With most goalies it's the same thing," San Jose's Dan Boyle said. "Get traffic in front of him, don't let him see the puck, shoot, get the rebounds, get the ugly goals. It doesn't really matter which goalie it is. It's the same for everybody."
In 12 playoff games so far, Niemi has a .909 save per centage and a 2.57 goals against average. He's matched against veteran Evgeni Nabokov of the Sharks, who's played 76 post-season games in his career with a .914 save per centage and a 2.26 GAA in the post-season.
"He's proven game after game that he's solid out there," Nabokov said. "People create that perception that they have troubles and this and that. I don't think they have troubles. They have a solid goaltender right now."
Niemi's inexperience—he played in 39 regular season games this year before his first foray into the playoffs—has not been a big deal to his teammates.
"He's been great," Chicago's Patrick Sharp said. "There's been no doubt in our locker room. He's been strong just about every game. If he does have a tough one, he comes back the next one even better."
The Blackhawks are hoping Niemi's best days are ahead, especially in the next couple of weeks. It's been a remarkable progression for a guy who once cleaned the ice.
A dozen games into the frenzied atmosphere of the NHL playoffs, he at least knows what it's all about.
"I feel really comfortable now. I think I've been growing all the time. I feel really good," he said.
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.