SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The San Jose Sharks were left broken and beaten by Antti Niemi last spring, when he was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. This season, they're riding his great play through the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Niemi made 33 saves Sunday afternoon as the Sharks slipped held off the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 to grab a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series. He had a shutout streak of 112 minutes, 31 seconds snapped when Henrik Zetterberg scored a power-play goal with 6:02 left in regulation.
The 27-year-old has stopped 57 of 59 shots in this series after struggling to find consistency during the Sharks' six-game first-round series with the Los Angeles Kings. But Niemi has regained the form that led the Blackhawks to a four-game sweep of the Sharks in last season's Western Finals on the way to a Stanley Cup.
"That doesn't surprise me or anyone in our organization," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said of Niemi’s play. "We've come to expect that from him. I think maybe because of his numbers in the first series, people outside our locker room got panicky about this guy. He's a solid goaltender who plays extremely well."
Some of Niemi's biggest and best saves came during the game's first 10 minutes, when the Sharks were forced to kill off three minor penalties. He made two good stops on Valtteri Filppula with Ryane Clowe in the penalty box during the first three minutes, then came up with another on Pavel Datsyuk while Benn Ferriero served a double-minor for high sticking.
"We needed him in six of the first 10 minutes when we were shorthanded," McLellan said. "He made some very good saves. The momentum swing there … the ability to play with the lead was due in large part to his ability to stop the puck on the penalty kill."
Between the penalties to Clowe and Ferriero, the Sharks took a 1-0 lead when Ian White unleashed a rocket from the point that beat a screened Jimmy Howard at 4:54. White, acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 18 to help improve the power play, came through with Justin Abdelkader in the penalty box for high sticking.
If White looked confident as he took his shot, it's because he was.
"Yeah, I did," White said when asked if he knew it was a goal when he let it go before taking it a step further. "Actually, before I even shot it, all I could see was net and there was no one in the way. I figured if I could hit it anywhere close, it was going to go in."
The Sharks' power play that was dormant in the first round against the Kings (2-for-23) now has two goals in two games in this series.
After White scored, a very intense goaltending duel took place over the next 35 minutes.
The Red Wings had their first dangerous scoring chance of the second period while killing a penalty in the first three minutes. Darren Helm stripped Jason Demers of the puck at the blue line and took off on a clear-cut breakaway. Helm tried to go five-hole, but Niemi squeezed the pads to keep the Sharks ahead by a goal.
Howard, who made 35 saves, answered with a great save of his own later in the period while the Red Wings were killing a penalty. A shot from the point fell at the feet of Patrick Marleau, who didn't track the puck quickly. He eventually saw it at his skates and whacked a shot toward the net, but Howard sprawled and made the save with his chest and face.
Not long after, Howard came up with another big save off a redirection by Dany Heatley, sliding his right pad along the ice to stop the deflection.
Howard is 0-2 in this series, but has stopped 79 of 83 shots for a .952 save percentage.
"It’s disappointing," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said of Howard coming up short despite his sensational play. "But he has to continue to play well for us, and we have to do a better job in front of him, too, clearing out the people coming in there and try to push their shooters to the outside a little more."
Niclas Wallin scored what turned out to be the winner just 1:39 into the third period on what should've been a routine save for Howard, considering how sharp he looked in stopping all 19 shots he faced in the second period. But Wallin's wrist shot from the right wing off a rush bounced off Howard's glove and rolled into the net to make it 2-0.
Wallin has just four career postseason goals; the previous three all were scored in overtime.
"It was a lucky bounce, but it was a rocket though," Wallin said jokingly. "It feels good to score goals. I'm not that kind of guy. I can shoot the puck too. Just let it go and see what happens."
The series will shift to Detroit for Game 3 on Wednesday, giving the teams two days off. If the trend continues, the Sharks can expect an even better performance out of the Red Wings after playing much better in Game 2 than they did in Game 1.
"We expected a much better game from them, and we got it," McLellan said. "They were markedly better and played very hard minutes in our zone. The only way you can defend is by using five guys. If you get down to four or someone wanders out of position, you get in trouble. I thought our guys did an admirable job around the blue paint. They came much harder tonight than they did the other night.
"At the end of the day, the two teams are pretty darn even."
The Sharks are now 6-1 in their last seven playoff games against the Red Wings, with all the victories coming by one goal. They may be evenly matched, but the Sharks are the team that's finding ways to win.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo