Antti Niemi defies doubters with performance in Canadiens’ SO loss

Kyle Turris beat Antti Niemi in the shootout and the Nashville Predators defeated the Montreal Canadiens.

NASHVILLE — Antti Niemi didn’t just reinvent himself overnight.

The man who came to the Montreal Canadiens as a fourth-string insurance policy that had numbers so incredibly unbecoming of an NHL goaltender that there was a hockey-worldwide chorus of laughter when general manager Marc Bergevin picked him up on waivers from the Florida Panthers. And his 31-save performance on Wednesday in Nashville will do little to change the general perception of what his ability is at this stage of his career.

But give credit where it’s due: Without Niemi coming up with the goods against the Predators, his Canadiens would’ve flown home with zero points in the bank instead of a hard-earned one on what was as tough of a mini road trip as they could’ve undertaken.

Filip Forsberg scored twice on the power play—both goals that were virtually unstoppable—and Kyle Turris had the only goal in the shootout to give the Predators a 3-2 win, but it was Niemi who got the lion’s share of credit for the game making it that far.

“He was great,” said Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, who made 27 saves of his own and allowed goals from defencemen Jordie Benn and Joe Morrow. “He played a really strong game, kept them in the game at times. We were buzzing pretty good in the game at times and I thought he was exceptional. I was happy to see that.

“Obviously he’s a fellow Finn, and I know him, but just being a goalie, I’ve been through stretches where the results aren’t there and I get a lot of heat. So you feel for the guy. But for years and years I’ve played against Antti and he’s been a solid goalie in the NHL for years. So hopefully tonight he was able to show a little bit of what he can do.”

It was more than anyone expected of him.

Niemi—who had an 0-4-0 record, a 6.67 (!) goals-against average and an .820 (!) save percentage with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Panthers this season—didn’t surprise himself.

It was less than a week ago that he was sitting at his Canadiens stall at their south shore practice facility, when he told Sportsnet that he was grateful that Bergevin had taken a chance on him. Niemi said that he was eager to prove Bergevin right, and that he was excited to be given the opportunity to be reunited with goaltending coach Stephane Waite.

The two of them had worked together at the beginning of Niemi’s career in Chicago, won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 with the Blackhawks, and had established a foundation for him to have a few successful years in San Jose before his game fizzled in Dallas over two seasons and imploded with the other teams he played for this season.

“[Waite] is about the fundamentals,” Niemi said. “I haven’t had a lot of time to work with him this time around, but he’s bringing me back to basics—positioning, the way I stand in my crease, tracking the puck. Nothing too complicated. He keeps it simple.”

Some good practice time and one performance doesn’t reverse a whole lot of bad, but it does help to restore some pride.

“I had an idea,” said Niemi, when he was asked about the reaction from all corners of the hockey world after he touched down in Montreal. “I didn’t know about it at first, I don’t think. But it was just a hassle with everything anyways, so it’s not a big deal…I just want to perform and play and have fun.”

And in the process of doing that, the 34-year-old Niemi gave some much-needed hope to his team when they needed it most.

For a second night in a row the Canadiens were without top defenceman Shea Weber. They’ve been without starting goaltender Carey Price since Nov. 2 due to a lower-body injury, which is the reason Niemi landed in Montreal to begin with, and they were coming off a devastating loss to the Dallas Stars.

Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher brought his team into the fight on the very first shift of the hockey game. He took three crosschecks from former teammate P.K. Subban and charged his way to the front of Rinne’s net and parked himself there on every shift that followed.

The team took Gallagher’s lead and battled for every inch of the ice. Linemate Charles Hudon set up the Benn goal 12:47 into the first. Morrow’s goal came seconds after Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson missed an empty-netter, and it was borne of total desperation. Defenceman Jakub Jerabek looked good in his first NHL game, and defenceman Jeff Petry might have played his best game of the season—logging close to 30 minutes in the game.

But the night belonged to Niemi, who stopped Kevin Fiala and Forsberg in the shootout before surrendering the winner to Turris.

“Anybody who knows the game understands that this guy played well for us tonight,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “His compete level was really good. He made some big saves for us. It was nice to be able to count on him tonight to be a fresh goaltender to give us an opportunity to win a hockey game. He did just that. I thought he was good and we needed that kind of performance from a goaltender like that.”

It might be the last one Niemi offers the Canadiens this season.

Price is on the mend and nearing a return, Charlie Lindgren has been excellent in his absence, and backup Al Montoya will inevitably return from a concussion.

“I just want to play my own game on the level I can play,” Niemi said.

He’s earned at least one more opportunity to do that somewhere this season.

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