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As playoffs progress, Niemi continues to evolve

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- When the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi needed some help getting to sleep because of his nerves.
The young Finnish goaltender hadn't played a minute of playoff hockey in the League and didn't know what to expect. Now?
What a difference 15 playoff games makes. After stopping 44 shots for the second time in this Western Conference Finals series against San Jose during the Hawks' 3-2 overtime win Friday night at the United Center, Niemi is having a lot more fun.
"I'm getting more confident game by game," said Niemi, who stopped five shots in overtime after letting in the game-tying goal by Patrick Marleau at 15:37 of the third. "I'm having more fun, too, as we (continue to) play well."
Hawks fans and his teammates are having fun watching him.
At times, just as he did in Game 1, Niemi almost single-handedly kept the Hawks in the game with big saves. The Hawks killed off all but one of six Sharks power plays bolstered by Niemi's quick reflexes, and he nearly stopped Marleau's first goal on a 5-on-3 in the second period. The puck just glanced off the top of his trapper and went into the corner of the net for a 1-0 San Jose lead 3:58 into the period.

It seems like the more the Sharks throw at him, though, the better Niemi gets.
"You can't get too carried away with that, but you start feeling good after a good save," he said. "Your timing is good, your position is good and you just know that you're going to make that next save, too."
The Sharks might be starting to think that way, as well.
After peppering Niemi with shots yet again, only to come away with another loss, all they can do is keep shooting. Both goals Niemi allowed came off rebounds and he didn't have much of a chance to stop the second shots.
The shots that he did see, he gloved, kicked or turned away with his blocker -- including one on Sharks center Joe Thornton near the start of the third after a turnover in the Hawks zone.

"In the second he stuck his leg out on me when I thought I had an empty net," Sharks forward Ryane Clowe said. "You're thinking to yourself, 'c'mon.'"
"He's been good," added center Joe Pavelski, who had a goal disallowed by video review just 1:51 into the game. "He's made the saves on us and we have to find a way to catch him leaning and score. You saw the way we scored our few goals tonight, and that's how we have to do it. We had enough chances again, so it's important we stay with it."
The thinking is that their luck has to change eventually, but with Niemi stopping 113 of the 118 shots he's faced in this series, time is quickly running out. Meanwhile, Niemi is starting to get his name mentioned on a more national scale.
Has he done enough to be mentioned along with the game's best at his position?
"I'm (moving) forward every day, but it's not a thing I should be worried about at all right now," Niemi said. "Maybe (I'll) think about that in the summer time."

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