DETROIT – Antti Niemi all but had the leather gloves on while doing his best impersonation of a cat burglar evading laser alarm triggers in a museum.
The San Jose Sharks goalie was leading his team toward a second theft of a road game in which they were being outplayed in this Western Conference Semifinal series against the Detroit Red Wings. After two periods – including a wild first period when Detroit outshot San Jose 18-6 – Niemi had stopped all 32 shots he faced.
He then continued to turn away shots in the first half of the third, with the Sharks clinging to a slim 1-0 lead, before he tripped one of those alarms and set off a Red Wings' outburst. Henrik Zetterberg tipped in a goal to tie 1-1, Valtteri Filppula followed it up thanks to a pinpoint pass by Pavel Datsyuk and Detroit was on its way to forcing an improbable Game 7 on Thursday in San Jose.
Still, the play of Niemi was one of the few bright spots the Sharks could look back upon after the final horn sounded.
"He played super," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "He gave us a chance to win. We just couldn't win it, but it was just a fantastic performance."
Did they think he was about to swipe another one from the confounded Red Wings?
"Yeah, when a goalie plays like that you do," Thornton said. "You score that goal (by Logan Couture in the third) and you thought it might be enough, but it wasn't, so whatever."
In all, Niemi stopped 43 of 45 shots in a game his team was outshot by a margin of 20 – including 32-13 in the first two periods. Still, the score remained 0-0 heading into the third thanks largely to his play and also some luck on missed shots by Danny Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom in the first period.
Cleary beat Niemi on a breakaway but clanked his shot off the left post and Holmstrom missed a wide open net on a shot off a long rebound while getting undercut with time running out in the period. Otherwise, it was the Sharks' big Finn making the partisan Red Wings crowd groan in frustration time after time.
"I felt pretty good today, so I want to keep doing that (in Game 7)," Niemi said. "Everything affects how you see the puck. How they play, how our (defensemen) play, so I think those things went pretty well."
He also didn't mind all the action, crediting all the shots for keeping him in rhythm rather than nervous with anxiety.
"It's kind of easier when you get shots all the time," he said. "You stay in the game. You don't have time to think about it."
He does have a long flight home to think about Game 7 on Thursday, however. He and the Sharks know they'll need to be a lot better than they were in this game if they want to finally close out the Wings.
"We've got to have more energy in our home rink," said Niemi, who admitted it felt like they'd steal Game 6 when leading with 10 minutes left. "You never know what's going to happen. It's one game and I think we're able to win one game. I don't think it's anything too big. It's great to get a game at home and I think we'll be better. We have the puck more at home, so I think it's a big advantage for us."
The way he played on Tuesday night could've been a big advantage for the Sharks, but instead they let it slip through their hands to put themselves on the brink of the season ending for the first time this postseason.
"You can't take much out of this game other than Nemo was great," Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray said. "We put up an embarrassing effort. It's nothing to do with X's and O's. It's about whatever it takes to get yourself ready. We weren't skating, we weren't making quick plays, we weren't doing anything right. This was unacceptable. But we have to move away from it. We've got an important game Thursday."