Once a young man riding the Zamboni in his native Finland to make ends meet, Montreal Canadiens backup goaltender Antti Niemi has definitely come a long way.
The 35-year-old from Vantaa, Finland was never drafted into the NHL. Instead, he caught the eye of the Chicago Blackhawks while he was playing for the Lahti Pelicans in Liiga. The Blackhawks gave Niemi his first big break, signing him back in 2008.
However it wasn’t until the following year, during the 2009-10 season, that he really got his first experience between the pipes at the NHL level, splitting the goaltending duties with former Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet.
Back then, it was goaltending coach Stephane Waite who really saw potential in the then-26-year-old. He got his first win on March 1, 2009, 4-2 over the Los Angeles Kings, and has since piled on an additional 241 victories.
In his first full season, he played 39 games, going 26-7-4 with seven shutouts. This gave him the upper edge over Huet in the battle for the post-season starting role. Claiming the position, he was virtually lights out, going 16-6 in the playoffs, with another couple of shutouts en route to Chicago winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961, when Glenn Hall was the hero in net. He also became the first Finnish-born goaltender to win the Cup, with fellow countryman Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins becoming the second the following year.
Following the success in Chicago, Niemi played the next five seasons with the San Jose Sharks, who hoped he could help them turn perennial contender status into an actual championship. After more frustrations for the Californian club, he followed that stage of his career with a two-year stint with the Dallas Stars.
It was in his second season with Dallas where Niemi’s performance took a turn for the worse. He had struggled in his final season with them, finishing the campaign under .500 for the first time in his career, also with career lows in goals-against average (3.30) and save percentage (.892).
It was time for a change.
He signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had just won back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Penguins management saw Niemi as a good fit as a veteran behind Matt Murray with the loss of Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
His stay in Pittsburgh was cut very short, waived after just three games with the club after allowing 16 goals in that span. He was claimed by Florida, and lasted an even shorter time with them, being waived again after just two games.
That’s when Marc Bergevin and the Canadiens brass, which now included Waite, took over and claimed him on November 14, 2017.
The first reactions upon his arrival to the big hockey market of Montreal and its giant fan base was one of mixed emotions. The Habs had just traded Al Montoya to the Edmonton Oilers, and here was a veteran goaltender who had been waived not once but twice that season, and it was only a month in.
However, the big Finn stood tall in net, going 7-5-4 in his first year, while still maintaining solid numbers: a 2.46 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage, with two shutouts.
This season, he has already surpassed that win total, sitting at 8-5-1.
On January 15 versus the Florida Panthers — the team that let him go to join Montreal a season earlier — he set a Montreal Canadiens record. For a team as old and storied as the Habs, that means something.
He recorded the victory, but also mystified the Panthers’ offence, turning aside 52 of 53 shots, including 37 in the last two periods alone, to set the record for most saves by a Canadiens goaltender in a home game. (The record for any game in franchise history is 53, shared by his current teammate Carey Price and his former goaltending coach in San Jose, Wayne Thomas, who accomplished the feat back in 1974.)
With the crowd chanting “NI-EMI, NI-EMI” that night, and a roaring standing ovation for the veteran as fans cheered loudly as he was named the first star of the game, it seems as though Niemi is finally getting his groove back. He is happily settled in at his new home in Montreal.