MONTREAL — It was a scene that was unimaginable on the day Antti Niemi was claimed off of waivers by the Montreal Canadiens: The fans rising to their feet at the Bell Centre, chanting his name as he was on his way to setting a career high in saves (52) in a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.
“I’ve never had that before,” he said afterwards.
“NI-E-MI,” they roared after the 35-year-old Finn made his 47th save of the night, freezing a Mike Hoffman one-timer to pull within one stop of his previous career high.
It was a special moment. A massive one for him in a career that has seen him go through so many peaks and valleys you’d think he was a professional skier.
The 60 minutes Niemi offered the Canadiens on this night were also monumental for their season. They had come back to Montreal in the early hours of the morning after a playoff-style win over their most bitter rivals in Boston. They were left with little time to prepare for a motivated and rested Panthers team that had suffered six straight losses and held a players-only meeting at the Bell Centre to buck that trend. And it was obvious they were in trouble as soon as the puck dropped, putting the progress they had made in the standings a night prior in jeopardy.
The shots read 7-0 Florida after seven minutes of play, forcing Niemi to contort himself in every direction to keep the score at 0-0.
Seven minutes and 11 seconds later, Hoffman scored the only goal that beat him — a cheeky forehand-one-hand backhand finish a la Peter Forsberg that was virtually unstoppable.
But Niemi came up with 15 saves in that first frame, 16 in the second period, and then 21 over the final 20 minutes to get the job done and push the Canadiens into a tie with Boston in points and pull them within one point of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division standings.
The win also kept them ahead of the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres and in the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.
That it was Niemi who delivered it — never mind the fashion in which he did — was somewhat of a surprise.
It was the topic of the day on sports-talk radio across Montreal, in both of Canada’s official languages: Should Price start after making 41 saves against the Bruins? Actually, the tone from most callers was, “Shouldn’t he start?”
A lot of that had to do with the fact that Price had come on in early December and caught fire over the six weeks since, but some of it surely had to do with Niemi entering Tuesday’s action with an .886 save percentage and a 3.85 goals-against average on the season.
It was Niemi’s most recent performances — coupled with the fact that Price had recently missed time when an irritation he had played through for seven weeks flared up in practice — that gave Canadiens coach Claude Julien the confidence to tune out the noise and start his backup.
Niemi had made 47 saves in a 3-2 overtime win over the Dallas Stars on New Year’s Eve, and he made 32 in a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 8.
They were the type of performances no one saw coming back in November of 2017, when he arrived in Montreal after a horror-show start to the 2017-18 season. He had allowed 21 goals and stopped just 97 of 118 shots in five games split between the Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins, and he had all but killed his career in the process.
Whether Niemi would actually get the opportunity to resurrect it in Montreal was completely up in the air upon his arrival. The general consensus was that he was only here to serve as an insurance policy for 24-year-old Charlie Lindgren, who might be in over his head with Price sidelined by a lower-body injury and backup Al Montoya forced to the injured reserve list with a concussion at the time.
But that’s when Niemi put his head down and got to work.
The end result was a 7-5-4 record for a Canadiens team that finished in 28th place. He deserved better given his .929 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average in 19 appearances, but at least it earned him a $950,000 contract for this season.
On Tuesday night, Niemi improved to 8-4-1 in this year’s campaign. He did so in the most remarkable way possible, and his teammates were elated for him.
“He’s an outstanding professional,” said Price. “He’s won a Stanley Cup before (with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010). It’s nice to have that experience in this room, and he and I have a very strong connection with the way we both think about the game in a very similar way.
“He was outstanding tonight. His performance was immense, and it was great to see the fans give him that (recognition).”
They were on their feet for Shea Weber, who scored on the power play to make it 1-1 in the first minute of the second period. They rose for Phillip Danault, who made it 2-1 a little over 10 minutes later.
Max Domi got a heck of an ovation after he broke an 18-game goal drought to put the Canadiens up 3-1. Jesperi Kotkaniemi got them out of their seats when he stormed past Mike Matheson and made an exceptional move on Panthers goaltender James Reimer for his sixth goal of the season. And Brendan Gallagher got them up once more when he scored his 19th goal of the season into an empty net with 1:36 to play.
But the fans stuck around and reserved their highest praise for Niemi, who skated back onto the ice as the game’s first star. It was surreal.