Antti Niemi's bare-handed save highlights Penguins' preseason win
COLUMBUS, Ohio — What coach Mike Sullivan likes most about Antti Niemi in the week or so he has seen the veteran netminder up close is his competitiveness.
He'll do anything to try to stop a puck.
Niemi made 31 saves, including one with his unprotected left hand after his glove had been knocked off in a net-front scramble as the Penguins recorded a 4-3 exhibition victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night.
When Niemi lost his glove during a third-period scramble, he figured referees would whistle the play dead.
"But they didn't, so I kept playing," Niemi said.
Niemi hugged the post to his left, and when Columbus defenseman Ryan Collins tried to pick a corner, he threw up his bare palm to knock the puck away.
In an amazing stroke of luck, he wasn't injured. It barely even stung.
"It wasn't bad," Niemi said. "The hand was moving at the same pace (as the puck), kind of. So it wasn't bad."
Niemi said officials told him play will not be stopped when a goalie loses his glove or blocker this season. A whistle will only come if a helmet is dislodged.
"That could potentially be dangerous, but I think that's once again just an indication of his compete," Sullivan said.
Niemi, 34, has been solid in two exhibition starts for the Penguins, recording a .918 save percentage in five periods of work. Niemi, who won the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, comes to the Penguins after two subpar seasons in Dallas.
"He just competes hard in there. He battles. He fights to see the puck," Sullivan said. "What I've really liked about Antti is he wins. He's got a winning record in the NHL. There's something to be said for that."
The Penguins got enough offense to prevail in Friday's game despite an overall game Sullivan described as inconsistent.
"There was a young lineup on both sides. With that comes inconsistent play," Sullivan said. "There's glimpses of brilliance out there. You see some really nice plays or guys make subtle plays and you get really excited about the upside. Now it's about trying to help them mature and grow as players."
Olli Maatta snapped a 3-3 tie in the final two minutes of regulation, burying the rebound of a Scott Wilson shot off the end boards.
Maatta has scored in both preseason games he has played.
"Olli's always had an element of offense to his game," Sullivan said. "He sees the ice really well. He jumps into holes. He joins the rush. Olli's a really smart player. I think his hockey sense is underrated."
Before that, it was rookie wingers doing the scoring. Daniel Sprong, Zach Aston-Reese and tryout Sam Miletic had goals.
"It's definitely nice for the confidence, but as far as other things, like winning puck battles and getting in first on the forecheck, there's still room for improvement," Aston-Reese said.
Miletic, 20, is one of the least heralded players in camp. The undrafted, 6-foot winger had a breakout season for London of the Ontario Hockey League last season, scoring 37 goals in 65 games.
"It's a big step up," Miletic said. "Every game, it gets better. Just getting more used to the speed. Everyone's obviously really fast and strong and skilled here. Just gotta get used to it."
If he continues to impress, Miletic is in line for an AHL deal with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or perhaps even an NHL contract.
"He's one of those guys, he kind of grows on you," Sullivan said. "He doesn't wow you with speed or his shot, but he just seems to be in the right places out there. He makes a lot of subtle plays that make him effective."
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.