CHICAGO -- Antti Niemi took the ice at the United Center on Thursday morning for the first time since he helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup last season as a rookie goalie.
A lot of great memories came rushing back, but none could change the fact Niemi now wears the teal and black of the San Jose Sharks -- a team he helped the Hawks sweep in the Western Conference Finals last spring.
After taking Chicago to arbitration as a restricted free agent, Niemi signed with the Sharks as an unrestricted free agent when the Hawks walked away from the arbitrator's awarded amount. Now he's back in the Windy City for the first time since parading the Cup through the city's streets -- and he's trying to improve his record against Chicago to 3-0 this season.
"It feels funny," Niemi said, following San Jose's optional morning skate. "It's been a long time. It's a special day coming back here."
Which memories of his time with the Hawks stood out most prominently?
"Every good moment here," said Niemi, who will try to help the Sharks end a two-game losing skid. "Every game we won here. There (were) so many good memories."
Yet, there was also the memory of what it felt like when the Hawks didn't re-sign him. Did the way his time in Chicago end make him even a little mad?
"Not really mad," Niemi said. "It didn't go the way I thought. It just went a different way."
That statement was followed by a laugh, but Niemi also made it clear that he values these games against Chicago for more than just the two points on the line.
"The (first) two games are games that I will remember for a long time, so I think this will be one of those too," Niemi said, referring to Thursday night's 7:30 p.m. CT showdown against the Hawks. "I hope it's going to be a good memory still."
Chicago hopes otherwise.
In the Blackhawks' two losses against Niemi, they've scored a total of three goals on 61 shots -- squandering a solid performance by rookie goalie Corey Crawford on Dec. 11 in a 2-1 overtime defeat. On Thursday night Niemi will face Marty Turco, who's played well of late, but whom he's already beaten once.
In order to keep that from happening again, the Blackhawks think the solution lies in creating more chaos around the San Jose goal. They also know it's tough to beat Niemi down low.
"He takes away the bottom of the net the best in the League," Hawks forward Troy Brouwer said. "He's really good down low, reads the play well and fights through traffic well. So with that in mind, we've just got to shoot pucks, get traffic in front of him and make sure we're getting second and third opportunities."
As for how Niemi will be received by Hawks fans, most think he'll get a warm welcome -- or as warm as Chicagoans can be for players not wearing a Blackhawks sweater.
"I have no idea," Niemi said, when asked what he thinks will happen. "I hope it's positive. I don't know."
Hit on Toews not forgotten: Troy Brouwer was on the ice but didn't see St. Louis Blues forward Matt D'Agostini level Jonathan Toews with a hit that sent the Hawks captain into the boards awkwardly.
Toews injured his shoulder on the play and is expected to be out for two weeks. Toews told Brouwer the hit wasn't dirty, but Brouwer still took a run at D'Agostini later in the game -- and got penalized. Brouwer was asked about that on Thursday and said he was aiming to send a message.
"Not the penalty part, but maybe the hit," he said. "You've got to make sure you're at least getting something back on ‘em. When somebody hits your leader like that, there might need to be some ramifications, I guess."
Hawks mum on new 'A': Having Toews out for two weeks with a shoulder injury means that one of Chicago's players will be wearing an ‘A' on his sweater that usually isn't on there.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said he will determine who the new alternate captain will be before Thursday night's game, while Hawks fans and reporters are having fun guessing who will get the ‘A.' If Patrick Kane knows who it will be, he did a good job playing coy.
"I haven't even really thought about that until you mentioned it," said Kane, one of the popular theoretical picks. "I'm sure that whoever gets it will be pretty deserving of it."
Faceoffs a concern for Chicago: Chicago will be hard-pressed to replace Toews' efficiency in the faceoff circle. He leads the team in winning draws by a large margin, which begs the question of who Quenneville will turn to while Toews is out.
"That's a good question," Quenneville said. "We should assume that everybody we have faith in can win an important draw -- or any draw for that matter. We're playing a very good faceoff team tonight, so it's something that is part of it."