In the wake of the NHL’s first expansion draft in 17 years, the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves with a large hole to fill in the roster, and Finnish goaltender Antti Niemi found himself a free agent.
The Penguins didn’t have to wait long to find a suitable replacement for Marc-Andre Fleury with some NHL tenure to supplement and mentor Matt Murray, who is still acclimatizing himself to the starting role.
A few days before free agency window opened, Dallas Stars general Jim Nill officially abandoned the two-goalie system the team had been utilizing, announcing they were buying out the final year of Niemi’s contract.
When the opportunity presented itself to land a Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender who has appeared in 67 playoff games at a favorable cap hit, the Penguins seized it.
Niemi has appeared in 423 games, earning a record of 227-125-51-35 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.49. He has also collected 37 shutouts.
Here are five of Niemi’s best NHL performances.
5. Feb. 21, 2015 – San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
In front of a crowd of 70,205 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Niemi and the rest of the San Jose Sharks took to the ice to battle the Los Angeles Kings in the only Stadium Series game of 2015.
The Kings and Sharks came out of the first period tied up at one goal apiece. The game stayed deadlock until the 4:04 mark of the third period when Marian Gaborik delivered the game-winning goal, earning the Kings a tight 2-1 victory.
Niemi made 27 saves in a game that makes the list for the sheer spectacle that is the Stadium Series and keeping his concentration in front of 70,000 people.
4. Jan. 3, 2011 – San Jose Sharks vs. Vancouver Canucks
Niemi became a member of the Sharks on Sept. 2, 2010, signing a one year deal worth $2 million.
The second game of the new calendar year saw Niemi face a career-high shot count (47) and save total (43) as Christian Ehrhoff and Jeff Tambellini led the way for the Canucks, with each putting five shots on goal.
Although the Sharks dropped the contest by a score of 4-3, it was the work of Niemi that provided them with an opportunity to stay in the game.
3. March 1, 2009 – Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Feb. 27, 2009, marked Niemi’s NHL debut, a one-period relief appearance in a 5–4 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He recorded his first NHL start days later on March 1 vs. the Kings.
The Blackhawks scored two goals in the first seven minutes and dictated the pace for most of the game. Chicago took the game 4-2, limiting the Kings skaters to 24 shots. Niemi allowed two goals in the first period, but regrouped, shutting the door the rest of the game and earning his first victory in his first start.
2. Oct. 8, 2015 – Dallas Stars vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Not only did the opening night of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2015 season feature the NHL debuts of Sergei Plotnikov, Daniel Sprong, and the 500th NHL game of David Perron, it also featured Antti Niemi’s first appearance in a Dallas Stars uniform and featured one of his finest NHL performances.
— Sports TV Channel (@SportsTVChannel) October 10, 2015
Niemi collected a career-high two points, earning secondary assists on goals by Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky.
He also earned his 31st career shutout, facing a barrage of 37 shots from Penguins shooters, including eight from Kris Letang and six from Phil Kessel.
1. June 9, 2010 – Chicago Blackhawks vs. Philadelphia Flyers
When Antti Niemi took over the starting position from Cristobal Huet in the latter stages of the 2009-10 regular season, many wondered if he had the ability to lead the Blackhawks back to the promised land for the first time in 49 years.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks split the first four games of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. With Chicago claiming a Game 5 victory by a score of 7-4. As the series shifted back to Philadelphia, the Blackhawks looked to close the series out, earning Chicago its first Stanley Cup title since 1961.
The Blackhawks entered the third period hanging on to a narrow one goal lead. It was Scott Hartnell’s goal at the 16:01 mark of the third period that sent the game to sudden death overtime.
Niemi had to be sharp in the extra frame, as he had only faced 22 shots in regulation. The Flyers managed to put two shots on goal in the extra frame.
When Niemi hoisted the Stanley Cup at Philadelphia’s Wachovia center, he cemented his place in the record books, becoming the first Finnish-born goaltender win the title.
Niemi is looking for a bounce-back year after a challenging season that saw him register career lows across the board. Given Pittsburgh’s penchant for restoring players to glory, I would count on Niemi giving Matt Murray a healthy dose of friendly competition.