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Niemi gives Sharks are ready to fulfill potential

by Phil Coffey
The monkey on the back of the San Jose Sharks is unfulfilled expectations, and the only way the critter is going to move on is when the Stanley Cup comes calling in San Jose.

That burden has rested on the talented Sharks for the past six seasons in which San Jose has topped 100 points five times and earned 99 on the other occasion. Last season saw the Sharks finish with a 51-20-11 record good for 113 points, which was tops in the Western Conference and second only to Washington in the entire NHL.

The Sharks have been criticized aplenty for falling short in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but based on the 2010 postseason, they appear poised to make a run at the Cup this season. Last spring, the Sharks got over the jitters of a 1-2 start against the Colorado Avalanche to win the series in six games. The daunting challenge of the Detroit Red Wings was overcome in five games, leading the Sharks to the Western Conference Finals and a date with the Chicago Blackhawks, who took the series in four-straight thanks to the stellar play of goaltender Antti Niemi, who allowed just 7 goals in four games.
The good news for the Sharks is Niemi now calls San Jose home, having signed on as a free agent this summer, joining another Finnish newcomer, Antero Niittymaki. The duo replaces the long-serving Evgeni Nabokov, who moved on to play in Russia.

So a tried-and-true goalie with postseason laurels is the biggest addition to the Sharks and Niemi joins a team with an arsenal of offensive weapons and a solid defense. All appears in place for the Sharks to shake that monkey off their back and make a very serious run at Lord Stanley.

You won't find a better group of forwards anywhere in the Western Conference, especially the top three.

Joe Thornton is coming off another solid season with 20 goals and 69 assists in 79 games. He is a wide body with sublime playmaking skills, but as yet no championship to his credit, so look for Thornton to be among the most motivated of Sharks when it comes to improving the 3 goals and 9 assists he produced in 15 playoff games last season.

Patrick Marleau is coming off a career season with 44 goals and 39 assists in 82 games and added 8 goals and 5 assists in postseason play. Joining Thornton and Marleau on the top line frequently has been Dany Heatley, who came over from the Ottawa Senators and scored 39 goals and 43 assists. Heatley had 2 goals and 11 assists in 14 playoff games.

Joe Pavelski enjoyed a very solid regular season with 25 goals and 26 assists and was a wonder in the postseason with 9 goals and 8 assists in 15 games, coupled with his strong play for Team USA at the Winter Olympics, Pavelski is primed for a breakthrough season. Ryane Clowe scored 19 times and assisted on 38 goals last season and added 2 goals and 8 assists in the playoffs. He is another player who figures to cement a spot among San Jose's top six. Add Devin Setoguchi into the mix there as well He had 20 goals and 16 assists in 70 games last season before adding 5 goals and 4 assists in 15 playoff games.

Among the other forwards who figure to make up the third and fourth lines are veteran Jamal Mayers, Scott Nichol, Torrey Mitchell, Jamie McGinn and Logan Couture.

Rob Blake hung up his skates after a distinguished career, so there will be a bit of a different look on the Sharks' defense. One thing that won't change is the importance of Dan Boyle, who is entering his third season in San Jose. Boyle is among the NHL's top offensive defensemen and finished last season as the fourth-leading scorer on the Sharks with 15 goals and 43 assists. Boyle added 2 goals and 12 assists in 15 playoff games too. Boyle will earn major-league minute on the San Jose defense this season.

Kent Huskins (3 goals, 19 assists in 82 games), Jason Demers (4 goals, 17 assists in 51 games), Douglas Murray (4 goals, 13 assists in 79 games), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (3 goals, 13 assists in 64 games) and Niclas Wallin (2 assists in 23 games after coming over from Carolina) round out a defense corps that is savvy and experienced.

As mentioned in the introduction, there is a whole new look in goal for the Sharks.

Niemi wrote one of the NHL's most unlikely success stories last season, earning the backup job to Cristobal Huet late in training camp with the San Jose Sharks, then earning the top job prior to the playoffs and leading the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. If he can reprise a similar journey this season, Niemi will be the toast of the town. As it is, he brings a solid presence to the San Jose nets.

During regular-season play with the Blackhawks, Niemi posted a 26-7-4 record with a 2.25 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. In the postseason, Niemi was 16-6 on his way to the Stanley Cup with a 2.63 GAA and .910 save percentage.

The other newcomer for the Sharks in goal is Niittymaki, who put together a winning season with a rebuilding Tampa Bay Lightning team last season. Niittymaki, who also played for the Philadelphia Flyers in his NHL career, was 21-18-5 last season with a .909 save percentage and 2.87 GAA.

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