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Niemi again taking on a starting role in net

by Adam Kimelman
It was around the beginning of last March that Antti Niemi, for all intents and purposes, became the No. 1 goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks. He started 17 of the Hawks' final 21 regular-season games, going 9-3-3 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.

The strong play continued right into the postseason, as he guided the Hawks to their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Niemi's strong play came after he started the season splitting time with Cristobal Huet. As the season wore on, however, Niemi just kept putting together strong start after strong start, to the point where Huet was relegated to full-time back-up duty.

This February, the same thing appears to be happening.

Niemi, a native of Vantaa, Finland, started the season splitting time with countryman Antero Niittymaki. However, as the Sharks' hot play has carried them up the Western Conference standings, it's been Niemi standing tall in the net.

He's played all eight games since the All-Star break, going 5-2-0 with a 1.88 GAA, .938 save percentage and a pair of shutouts.

The Sharks are 6-2-0 since the break and enter Thursday's games fifth in the Western Conference with 68 points, one behind third-place Phoenix. They entered the break in ninth place and nine points out of third place.

Niemi deflected some of the praise for his strong play on the teammates blocking shots and filling passing lanes in front of him.

However, he did give what could prove to be an ominous warning to the teams that might have to play the Sharks in the postseason.

"I think I'm feeling probably better right now, feeling more patient," Niemi recently told the San Jose Mercury News. "Last year I still hadn't played too many games in the NHL, so I feel much more comfortable now."
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