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Niemi helps Sharks get off to good start

by Risto Pakarinen
STOCKHOLM -- The San Jose Sharks brought in Antti Niemi to play the way he did last spring, when he helped the Chicago Blackhawks sweep them on the way to winning the Stanley Cup.

That's exactly what he did Friday, making 30 saves as the Sharks won their season debut by beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 on Friday in the first of two games in the Compuware NHL Premiere series at the Globe Arena.

Niemi looked a lot like the goaltender who shut down the Sharks as the Hawks swept the Western Conference Semifinals. Still, he played down his contribution.

"The most important thing was the win, but for me personally, it was great to get the win in my first game with my new team so that I don't have to worry about that," Niemi said.

"A win, two goals against, it was OK," he said, smiling.

Niemi signed with the Sharks on Sept. 3 and landed in California eight days later -- he was in such a hurry that when the camp opened, he was still sporting his Blackhawks mask. In Stockholm, though, Niemi is wearing a teal and blue Sharks mask, with two coats of arms on the back. The lion is for Finland, and the salmon tail is for his hometown, Vantaa, a city not far from Helsinki, the capital.

"It was a little strange in the beginning to see the players that I had played against a few months earlier now in the same dressing room," Niemi said.

On Friday, he was one of the Sharks' key players.

"I had a lot of work in the first period, a little easier in the second, and then again they had some good chances in the third. I thought we played well, especially on the power play," he said.

The Sharks took a quick 2-0 lead, but the Blue Jackets tied with two goals in 15 seconds late in the first period. That was all they got.

"There's no point in starting to think about the goals when that happens. I won't let it mess my game up, I'll just focus on stopping the next shot," he said.

The Jackets' first goal came while the Sharks were shorthanded, after a play that their first power-play unit has worked on. Nikita Filatov sent the puck through the slot to Kristian Huselius, who beat Niemi with a wrist shot.

"We had talked about their power play, and watched some video of it, so we were prepared. They got one of our defensemen a little out of position there, and could pass the puck across the slot area. I almost got it, though, I think it may have hit me on the shoulder, and then the post, before going in," he said.

Niemi may be a quiet guy in the dressing room, but on the ice he looks active, and very much involved in what's happening.

"I try to stay in the game so I even talk to myself quite a bit. And I try to yell to the defensemen when and where the forecheckers are coming. I'm not sure if they hear, or even understand me, though," he said with a laugh.

Niemi also made some impressive saves way outside the crease, stopping pucks in the faceoff circles with full-blown pad saves when the Blue Jackets iced the puck during Sharks' power plays.

"The ice was pretty bad so I definitely didn't want to take any chances there. If you try to stop them with the stick, and there's an odd bounce, the puck may just go through your five-hole or something," Niemi said.

With a brand new Stanley Cup ring in his pocket -- figuratively speaking -- and starting a new season with a team that's often considered something of an underachiever, Niemi is often asked about how he sees the Sharks' chances this season.

"The fact that the club hasn't had success lately shows in the amount of work everybody lays down every day," he said. "We have great players, and doing well in the postseason is the big goal."

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