ZURICH – While winning the Victoria Cup is important for the Chicago Blackhawks, and the NHL, for some individuals the Victoria Cup event and its two games are important on a personal level. A good showing in Zurich might be the difference between the NHL and the AHL, between Chicago and Rockford.
One of the hopefuls is Finnish goaltender Antti Niemi, who spent last season mostly in Rockford, even if he played three games in the NHL as well.
With 29 players – including three goalkeepers – are still on the roster, the Blackhawks management will have to make the last cuts before the regular season opener on Friday. For Niemi, that means fighting for a spot behind starting netminder Cristobal Huet.
“I feel good, and it’s great to be back in Europe for the start of the season,” Niemi said after the Blackhawk’s two-hour practice on Sunday.
“I feel like I’m close to making the team, but you never really know until you do. I don’t even know when they will make decision. Over here, I’ll split the first game with Corey Crawford, while Huet will play on Tuesday against the ZSC Lions,” he said.
For a goalie, proving that he’s worthy of an NHL roster spot can be difficult if he plays just a period or two. Niemi is determined to make the most of his opportunity, though.
“Since we only play six exhibition games before the regular season, there’s simply not enough games for everybody, since Huet also wants to get some games under his belt.
“I’ll just try to do the little things right, make sure the foundation is there, and do my best at practices. That will then carry over to the game. Some days are better than others, sometimes I’m tired. It’s all mental,” he says.
Despite the fierce competition for the roster spots, the atmosphere in and around the team is excellent, says Niemi.
“Then there’s the financial aspect, too. If some players have one-way deals, the team management will have to think twice whether to send him to the farm team, and risk losing him... although, I’m not sure about the rules,” he adds.
On Monday, Niemi will be doing his best to convince coach Joel Quenneville in the game against Davos.
“It’s a shame I won’t be playing on Tuesday against the ZSC Lions,” he says, referring to the fact that the Lions’ goalkeeper is a fellow Finn, 40-year-old Ari Sulander.
“It would have been fun, we’re practically neighbours back home in Vantaa, Finland,” he says, smiling.