CHICAGO - Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was faced with a dilemma as he pondered what to do about his goaltending situation in early March.
Chicago was set to resume NHL regular-season play following a 2-week break for the Winter Olympics. Was it time to return No. 1 goalie Cristobal Huet to the nets? Or should he stick with the less-tested, but promising rookie Antti Niemi?
Niemi had played well in four straight victories heading into the layoff and that seemed reason enough for Quenneville to stick with the kid.
"Niemi's won and we don't want to change much of that," Quenneville said at the time. "We want to get [Huet] back in the net, but at the same time [Niemi's] got an opportunity to sustain it."
Going with the 26-year-old Finn ended up being the correct call.
Niemi proved to be durable, consistent and showed increasing flashes of brilliance as he started 15 of the final 21 regular-season games following the break.
Behind Niemi, Chicago went on to win the Central Division for the first time since 2002, earned a franchise-record 112 points on a record of 52-22-8 and finished second overall in the Western Conference behind San Jose.
"He's a nice, quiet guy. What you see is what you get," teammate Adam Burish said. "[But] he knows he's good and he's confident whether it's a packed building or there's just one person there."
And as Chicago prepares for a Stanley Cup finals clash against the Flyers, Niemi is playing at his peak.
"I think I'm feeling more confident," Niemi said. "[And] I'm having more fun as we play well."
He's 12-4 in the postseason with a 2.33 goals against average. In the Blackhawks' four-game Western Conference championship sweep of the Sharks, Niemi gave up just seven goals, had 136 saves and a goals-against average of 1.67.
And that all came in the face of intense pressure, as San Jose hammered Niemi with 45 shots in one game and 46 in another.
Niemi, however, said he likes it.
"It's better mentally when you are busy all the time," he said. "You don't have time to think about anything else going on."
Niemi started his career in junior-level hockey in his native Finland, then joined the Pelicans of the Finnish SM-liiga, where he spent three seasons.
Chicago signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He spent most of the 2008-09 season with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford, Ill., played in 38 games and had a 2.43 goals against average.
Entering 2009-10, Niemi made the Blackhawks' roster as the backup to Huet, a 34-year-old veteran of four clubs and the first goalie from France to land in the NHL.
But Huet's streaky play opened the door for Niemi in early February, and the rookie went on a hot streak that cemented his starting status.
Niemi hasn't let being No. 1 affect his mind-set. He's maintained a Zen-like calm, never getting too excited or too down.
It's an approach that will serve him well on the NHL's biggest stage, starting Saturday.
"He's got the ideal personality for a goalie in that situation," Burish said. "He's unflappable."