Antti Niemi has been around a long time. Eleven NHL seasons, six different teams. And not once in all of that did the 35-year-old netminder experience what happened last night in Montreal: 20,000 people chanting his name.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever heard that before,” said Niemi of the crowd’s reaction. “So it’s pretty overwhelming. It’s great after all my ups and downs to have a couple of good games and be able to do that.
“It’s great. I don’t know what to say.”
Niemi made 52 saves in the Canadiens’ 5-1 win over the Panthers, obviously a personal best, and only one save off the franchise record. With the Habs exhausted by a playoff-intensity overtime win in Boston the night before, Carey Price was given the night off, and Niemi—whose career looked like it might be close to over last year when he was waived by two different teams in the first month of the season—stepped in with a performance beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Florida, which had lost six straight and held a players-only meeting before this game, came out hot and never let up. The Panthers had the game’s first seven shots, including Mike Hoffman’s spectacularly casual goal that nobody could have stopped. But the Habs then scored five unanswered, including a highlight-reel toe drag from Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Niemi was impenetrable.
Here’s a shot chart so cluttered that it looks like it’s both teams, but I swear it’s just Florida’s:
“That was a huge win,” Max Domi said. “I think obviously [Niemi] was our best player, by far. He won us that game. And I think we had our opportunities, we capitalized for him, and it’s great to see. He’s the hardest-working guy on our team. He’s always the last guy off the ice, he takes all the shots, and he’s been in the League for a long time for a reason. So it’s great to see that.”
It was about a year ago this time that Niemi first got the opportunity to resurrect his career. He had been awful for, and waived by, both the Penguins and Panthers in October, and landed with the Canadiens as what looked like just an insurance policy, since ahead of him on the depth chart were the superstar starter, a veteran backup, and a young, promising AHL prospect. But in January he ascended to the backup job, and responded by going 7-5-4—which doesn’t nearly credit his .929 save percentage and .246 GAA. It earned him the team’s Masterton nomination, and a one-year contract to keep plugging away. He hasn’t been nearly as good this year—but he’s 8-4-1, and has come up big in some big games.
A backup matters far beyond insurance for an injury to the starter. While the number of games he starts to spell the No. 1 guy may be limited, the margins between playoffs and golf can be razor thin, and the surprisingly contending Canadiens are right on that edge. They’re tied in points with the three-seed Bruins and one back of the Maple Leafs (though both have points in hand), and are one point up on Pittsburgh for the first wild card. The season’s going to come down to just a tiny handful of points, and significantly more often than not, Niemi’s done enough to earn them.