It’s not easy to be a goaltender in the NHL.
Players today have moves and skills that were unheard of even 10 years ago. Antti Niemi has been in the NHL over the course of the last decade, and at 34-years-old it looked like his NHL career was over early in the season.
Three disastrous starts for the Pittsburgh Penguins resulted in a 7.50 goals against and .797 save percentage. He was then placed on waivers and claimed by Florida where in two games he posted a 5.08 GAA a .872 SV%. He again went on waivers and it seemed unlikely any team would take a risk on a 34 year old goalie who had lost all of his confidence.
Enter the Montreal Canadiens.
With Carey Price and Al Montoya on the injured list, and Zach Fucale serving as an NHL backup, Marc Bergevin took a risk and claimed the Finn from Florida. Bergevin stated he wanted a veteran goalie in the NHL while Montoya and Price both recuperated, and at the cost, Niemi was an easy choice.
The low-risk gamble paid off, as Niemi more than rose to the occasion in Montreal with a 7-5-4 record to go with a 2.46 GAA and .929 SV%. Even though it was just 19 starts, his save percentage was the highest of his career, and highest overall since his 2012-2013 campaign with the San Jose Sharks where he posted .924 SV%.
At the end of the season Niemi earned the nod as Montreal’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, a fitting tribute for a season where he persevered though the worst stretch of his professional career. Then to top it all off, last week he signed a new one-year deal to stay in Montreal for next season, giving Carey Price a veteran back up, and Charlie Lindgren a chance to prove his last season was a fluke.
His reunion with his former goaltending coach Stephane Waite likely played a major role in his resurgence. Niemi helped backstop the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010, the start of a major run for the franchise. Waite was partially responsible for helping Price rebound after a tumultuous tenure under Pierre Groulx. Another year with Waite might help keep Niemi in consistent form, at least enough to be a capable sidekick to Price next season.
In his first start as a Hab, Niemi was tasked with facing down the future President’s Trophy winners Nashville Predators. Against the formidable attack of the Predators, Niemi stopped 31 of 33 shots in an effort that ended with a shootout loss. It was a fantastic start for a guy who was thought to finished in the NHL. Then, as is the way when you have such a poor start to the season, everyone waited for the wheels to fall off in some way. In the following 17 games, Niemi had a save percentage below .912% just four times. Over the course of those 17 starts, he faced 30 shots or more 11 times, including a 50 shot onslaught from the Boston Bruins where Niemi turned away 48 shots in a losing effort. He even capped off a solid season with a rare shutout for the Canadiens, stopping all 35 shots he faced in a 3-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres.
Niemi’s style wasn’t always textbook, but he did what he had to do every night to give his team a shot. Of course, a little luck never hurt either, but when he was in the net this year, Niemi played like a guy who had something to prove and he made a lot of people take notice by the end of the year. Playing with a chip on his shoulder, Niemi seemingly played at his best against his former clubs or in games where the Habs had no business being competitive.
He was one of the few bright spots in a dismal season in Montreal, and his strong performances earned him a brand new contract for this season. He went from nearly being out of the NHL, to stealing the show on a regular basis in a limited starters role and earning a new contract.
Niemi represented every part of the award he was nominated for.