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Hawks chase Niemi in win over Sharks

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO Antti Niemi used to enjoy hearing the Chicago Blackhawks' goal song, "Chelsea Dagger," blaring through the cavernous United Center.

It used to mean he was on his way to another win for the Blackhawks. Maybe he even sung along with it every now and then?

Now, he might be singing a different tune after the Hawks blasted the Sharks 6-3 on Monday night in front of 22,094 at the United Center – prompting San Jose coach Todd McLellan to pull Niemi just 7:25 into the second period.

The former Chicago goalie, who was vying to go 4-0 against the Blackhawks, was chased after giving up three straight goals to start the second. He headed to the locker room, while the fans who used to cheer him loudly mocked his departure.

"It was as good as it possibly could be for him, getting that ovation that he did," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, whose 30th goal was the one that sent Niemi packing."I'm pretty sure that's what it was. He's had our number in a lot of games, so I think we owed him one tonight. Niemi's a heck of a goaltender and you can tell he's still got the respect of that crowd here in Chicago."

Did it sting for Niemi to hear the mock ovation in his former home rink?

"Maybe a little bit, but not too much," said Niemi, who left Chicago after an arbitration award made him too expensive under the League's salary cap. "I was trying to look at this like another game."

Niemi wasn’t even around to see his former teammates tack on two more goals against Antero Niittymaki in what turned out to be a five-goal second period that turned a close game into a rout for the Blackhawks (38-24-8).

Patrick Sharp led the way with four assists, all in the second period, and tied a franchise record for assists in a period. Marian Hossa scored a pair of power-play goals – both set up by Sharp. Toews set a new career high in points (71) with a goal and assist. Patrick Kane potted his 100th career marker.

And that all happened just in the second period.

"It was just one of those periods where everything was going right for our team and we scored a bunch of goals," Sharp said. "It was a big period and I had some fun out there, but at this time of year the individual stats don't really matter."

Any tears shed for Niemi?

"No, not at all," Sharp said, chuckling. "He's a great goaltender. We know that. If feels good to get to him. He’s still a good friend and a good (former) teammate, but you know, we didn't feel bad for him leaving the net there."

Viktor Stalberg and Niklas Hjalmarsson also potted goals for Chicago, while Kane (1 goal, 1 assist) and Tomas Kopecky (2 assists) added multi-point efforts.

Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Logan Couture scored for the Sharks – who took a 2-1 lead into the second period thanks Thornton's late goal in the first.

The second period was almost all Blackhawks, as the defending Stanley Cup champions ended a three-game winless streak and moved into fourth place in the Western Conference with 84 points – just two back of San Jose. 

Even more impressive, the Hawks won convincingly while playing without defenseman Brian Campbell (foot) and center Dave Bolland (concussion).

McLellan forewarned reporters after the Sharks' morning skate about the danger of playing the Blackhawks, and he turned out to be right.

"I don't know if they're still finding their way," he said. "The games that I've watched, they scare the (heck) out of me because they're a heck of a team."

After the game, McLellan was just as candid about his own team – which is now winless in three straight games.

"If I was going to sum up the game: they skated, we glided," McLellan said. "They were hard on the boards, we were soft. We were looking for a win the easy way, and there's 30 teams in the League right now that know that doesn't work."

Especially when playing too much a man down. The Sharks came into the game ranked 23rd in killing penalties and Chicago went 2-for-6 with the man-advantage – including 2-for-3 in the second period. The Hawks also outshot San Jose 17-10 in the second and thoroughly outplayed the Sharks (39-23-8).

It was a 180-degree change from the first 20 minutes.

Chicago did itself no favors by picking up back-to-back penalties in the game's first two minutes, which gave the Sharks a 5-on-3 advantage and led to Pavelski's power-play goal to make it 1-0.

Niemi came up with several big stops to protect the lead, but Chicago kept pecking away and finally got one past him midway through the first to tie it 1-1 on Stalberg's 11th goal – which he batted out of midair into the net.

Sharp and Hossa then started the Chicago onslaught in the second by teaming up to create back-to-back power-play goals that gave the Hawks a 3-2 lead just six minutes into the period. Toews then scored 1:19 later on a wrister from the left circle, which was set up by a San Jose turnover.

That's the one that got Niemi yanked.

Hjalmarsson scored his third of the season to make it 5-2, and then Couture and Kane traded goals with less than three minutes to play in the period to give the Hawks a three-goal margin to start the third.

Toews assisted on Kane's goal and picked up a second assist that didn't get recorded by retrieving the puck for Kane.

"It was nice Toews went and got it for me," Kane said. "I told him I was going to get his 100th and then he scored and I kind of forgot it. It's pretty special. It's nice to get it and get it over with."

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