CHICAGO - If the Flyers are to succeed in the Stanley Cup Finals, they will have to do what Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose were unable to in this postseason: solve Chicago goalie Antti Niemi.
One of the top questions the Blackhawks faced coming into the postseason was how well the rookie Niemi would handle the stress of the playoffs. Two shutouts and a 12-4 record highlighted by a 2.33 goals-against average indicates that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville made the right call at the end of the season when he settled on the native of Finland to be his starting goaltender.
"His demeanor hasn't changed one iota from the beginning of the season," Quenneville said. "He has been the ultimate professional. Nothing rattles him, and nothing changes his attitude. He is a real student of the game and he is taking advantage of learning and the experience that is going on here."
Niemi admits he has taken satisfaction in what he has accomplished in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but he tries to keep those thoughts in the back of his mind. "I try to push them away," he said. "It's not time to deal with that."
Niemi is also quick to credit a Blackhawks defensive unit that has allowed few quality chances for Chicago's opponents. If that trend continues, Niemi believes the Flyers will have their hands full. "If the defense continues to play the way we have, we shouldn't have too many problems," he said.
One of the leaders of the Chicago defense is Duncan Keith, a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL's top defenseman. Keith, who lost seven teeth in Sunday's clincher against San Jose when he took a puck in the mouth, said the Blackhawks will not have to make too many adjustments to get ready for the Flyers.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," Keith said of what it will take for Chicago to handle the Flyers' attack. "We just have to continue what we have been doing and having smart positioning and executing."
Up front, the Flyers will have to find ways to subdue a Blackhawks offense that been paced in the playoffs by Dustin Byfuglien whose eight goals include three game-winners against San Jose. Center Jonathan Toews is leading the league with 26 postseason points and has scored in 13 consecutive playoff games, establishing a new Chicago record.
Another main weapon is Patrick Kane whose seven goals and 13 assists place him third in overall scoring behind Toews and the Flyers' Mike Richards.
Still, Kane acknowledges the Flyers' defense will present a unique challenge.
"If you look at their defense they are all lefthanded shots, so sometimes coming down the right wall, they are going to have their stick on you a little more," Kane said. "So we will have to create some space."
Kane also acknowledged the play of Chris Pronger.
"He's 35 years old now but it seems like he is in the prime of his career," Kane said. "With a guy like that, you are going to have to be aware of and get as much space as possible. He's a big guy with a long reach."