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Niemi fuels San Jose's drive for first place

by John Kreiser /
It took half a season, but Antti Niemi and the San Jose Sharks have both found their game.

The Sharks signed Niemi last summer -- three months after he helped the Chicago Blackhawks sweep them on the way to the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 49 years. But the Sharks and their new goaltender both struggled -- San Jose was battling to stay in the top eight in the West, and Niemi reached the new year with a goals-against average of 3.08 and a save percentage of .899.

But Niemi began to find his game in mid-January, and he was the biggest reason the Sharks finished February with an 11-2-0 record despite playing 10 of  their 13 games on the road. Niemi started all 13 games, went 10-2-0 and allowed just 24 goals while posting three shutouts.

For the second week in a row, Niemi went 3-0-0 -- this time beating Detroit, Pittsburgh and Calgary on the road. His GAA is down to 2.44 as San Jose prepares to begin March, while his save percentage has improved to .919. Not coincidentally, the Sharks have climbed back into first place in the Pacific Division.

Five up — Five players who've been hot:

Phil Kessel -- Kessel is a big reason the Maple Leafs have injected themselves back into the playoff race. He had 2 goals and 2 assists in a win at Montreal on Thursday and finished with 7 points as the Leafs went 2-0-1 last week.

Matt Calvert -- The 2008 fifth-rounder has given the Columbus Blue Jackets a much-needed jolt of offense. He has 9 goals and 13 points in 20 games, including a natural hat trick during a four-point performance on Friday night.

Vincent Lecavalier -- Lecavalier has been overshadowed by Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay, but his five-point night against Phoenix on Wednesday showed he's still an offensive factor.

Milan Lucic -- Talk about a happy homecoming: The Vancouver native had the winning goal and a pair of assists to help Boston to a 3-1 win on Saturday. That came after he scored twice against Calgary three nights earlier. He has 4 goals and 7 points in Boston's last games, all road wins.

Chris Stewart -- When you can say you've broken a record held by Brett Hull, you're doing OK. Stewart has done just that by scoring six times in his first five games with St. Louis, breaking the team mark of five goals set by Hull. The goals have come in pairs -- his two-goal game in Edmonton was his third in eight days with St. Louis.

Five down — Five players who are struggling:

Michael Frolik -- Suffice it to say the Blackhawks had hoped for more when it acquired Frolik from Florida. In his seven games with Chicago, he has yet to register a point and is minus-3.

Jason Arnott -- Though the New Jersey Devils have been hot, Arnott has not. The 36-year-old center has gone seven games without a point and has just 1 goal and 1 assist since the All-Star break.

Niklas Bergfors -- Bergfors' offensive struggles have coincided with Atlanta's slide out of the top eight in the East, He's gone seven games without a point and is minus-5 in that span.

Pekka Rinne -- Rinne and the Nashville Predators have both hit the skids. He's allowed 12 goals in Nashville's last four games -- all losses that have dropped the Predators out of the top eight in the West.

Ryan Wilson -- Colorado and Wilson are both in a slump. The Avs have dropped 12 of 13, and Wilson has gone 12 games without a point with a minus-10 rating.
Injuries, news and notes — It was a tough week for the Koivu brothers. Anaheim's Saku is out with a groin problem and Minnesota captain Mikko will miss at least another two weeks after breaking a finger on Wednesday.

Out — Philadelphia defenseman Chris Pronger left Thursday's game with a hand injury and didn't play Saturday. Another defenseman, Oskars Bartulis, went down with a shoulder injury on Tuesday and will miss 10-12 weeks. … Washington defenseman Mike Green returned Friday after missing two weeks with an "inner ear trauma" after being hit in the ear by a shot on Feb. 6. But he left in the first period after being crunched into the boards and did not return. … San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle sat out Friday's game with an upper-body injury. Defenseman Kent Huskins (upper body) and forward Scott Nichol (arm) have missed the Sharks' last three games. … Phoenix forward Ray Whitney left Wednesday's game in Tampa Bay with a lower-body injury and hasn't played since. … Nashville placed forward Steve Sullivan (groin) to IR on Friday, one night after he left the Preds' game against Chicago. … Edmonton placed goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin on IR due to an eye infection after he was hit by an ice chip during practice. … Rangers defenseman Mark Staal hasn't played since going down with a knee injury on Tuesday. Forward Marian Gaborik went down with a concussion on Sunday and hasn't played since. … Eric Staal missed Carolina's game at Montreal on Saturday after leaving Friday's game with an upper-body injury. … Pittsburgh lost another player on Wednesday when defenseman Brooks Orpik broke a finger on his right hand while blocking a shot. He's not expected back for at least another month. .. Blues defenseman Nikita Nikitin left Thursday's game with a lower body injury and didn't play Friday. … Colorado defenseman Ryan O'Byrne will miss a week with facial lacerations after a skate cut. … Detroit forward Patrick Eaves left Tuesday's game with a lower-body injury, sat out Thursday and didn't go with the team when the Wings left for a five-game trip that began Saturday. … Tampa Bay defenseman Mattias Ohlund missed Friday's game with a lower-body injury. … Florida forward Jack Skille is out indefinitely with a sprained ankle. Another forward, Rostislav Klesla, left Friday's game with a knee injury. …

Returning -- Rangers forward Ruslan Fedotenko returned Friday after missing more than a month due to a shoulder injury and an appendectomy. … Toronto goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere returned from a lower-body injury Saturday, though he didn't play. … Atlanta reactivated forward Fredrik Modin (upper body) on Friday. … Detroit center Mike Modano, who went down with a serious wrist injury in late November, returned Saturday -- three months to the day after he was injured. Forward Valtteri Filppula also returned Saturday after missing eight games with a knee problem. … Dallas reactivated Adam Burish and Krys Barch after both missed eight games with facial fractures.

Still out -- Nashville forward Marcel Goc will undergo shoulder surgery that will sideline him for the rest of the season. He was injured earlier this month, came back briefly and reinjured the shoulder. … Columbus put forward Kristian Huselius on IR. He's been out since Feb. 18 with a lower-body injury. … Pittsburgh forward Arron Asham is able to perform some activities but is nowhere near returning from a concussion sustained Feb. 1. Another forward, Chris Kunitz, has missed 10 games with a lower-body injury. Center Mike Comrie, who hasn't played for most of the season due to a hip injury, has been skating but there's no word if or when he'll be back. … Blues forward David Perron, sidelined since suffering a concussion on Nov. 4, reportedly is still not ready to get back on the ice, though he's able to do light exercises. … Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood, out since early January with a sports hernia that required surgery, hopes to return after the Wings' road trip this week. … Washington defenseman Tom Poti has been limited to 21 games by a lower-body injury, and the Caps say they're not sure if or when he'll play again this season. Forward Eric Fehr is still at least another week away as he recovers from a shoulder injury. … Tampa Bay defenseman Mike Lundin, out for the last three weeks with an abdominal injury, is skating and may be back at practice in the next few days. Forward Ryan Malone (abdominal) has begun light skating. … Islanders defenseman Mark Streit, who's missed the entire season with a shoulder injury that required surgery, is skating and shooting in non-contact drills. … Colorado defenseman Ryan O'Byrne (facial lacerations) is expected to miss at least another week.

The week ahead — The trade deadline comes Monday, when there are only two games on the schedule. Things get busy after that, with nine teams facing a four-game week and only Colorado scheduled to play just twice.

Games to watch: (Feb. 28 - March 6)

Detroit at Los Angeles (Feb. 28) -- The NHL Network will be on hand in the Staples Center when the Wings come to L.A. to begin a week out West.

Buffalo at New York Rangers (March 1) -- The Sabres begin a seven-game, two-week road trip with a stop in New York in a game that will air on Versus.
Pittsburgh at Toronto (March 2) -- In an odd bit of scheduling, the Penguins visit the Air Canada Centre for the second time in five days.

Tampa Bay at Boston (March 4) -- The Lightning will be the visitors as the Bruins return home after a successful six-game road trip.

Philadelphia at New York Rangers (March 6) -- NBC's Game of the Week comes back to Madison Square Garden as the Flyers visit the Big Apple looking to repeat their 3-2 win on Feb. 20.

Tough week ahead:

Buffalo Sabres -- Buffalo just spent two weeks at home; now comes the payback. The Sabres begin a seven-game trip in New York on Tuesday and play four times in six days away from home.   

Columbus Blue Jackets -- This is a key week for the Jackets' playoff hopes. Columbus spends the week playing three games in Western Canada in a span of four nights. The Jackets will likely cross paths with Nashville -- the Predators are making the same trip this week.

Detroit Red Wings -- The Wings began a five-game trip in Buffalo on Saturday; the other four games are all out West in a six-day span that begins Monday in Los Angeles.

Easy week ahead:

Atlanta Thrashers -- If the Thrashers are going to make a playoff push, they'll need to capitalize on a week that sees them play all three games at home, including twice against non-playoff teams.

Los Angeles Kings
-- After playing their first 10 games after the All-Star break on the road, the Kings continue a homestand this week -- though the opposition will be tough. Detroit, Phoenix and Vancouver, three of the top four teams in the West, come to the Staples Center.

San Jose Sharks -- Having spent most of February on the road, the Sharks have 13 of their last 19 at home, including three games this week. Of the three opponents, only Detroit is seemingly assured of a playoff berth.
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