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Niemi hopes to repeat last year's feat for Sharks

by Dave Lozo
STOCKHOLM -- In the world of sports, your worst enemy is always just a transaction away from becoming your best friend.

The San Jose Sharks and goaltender Antti Niemi can attest to that.

In last spring's Western Conference Finals, the top-seeded Sharks were facing the second-seeded Chicago Blackhawks for the right to play for the Stanley Cup. The only advantage either team seemed to have was in goal, where the Sharks boasted the experienced Vezina Trophy finalist in Evgeni Nabokov while the Blackhawks were rolling out a 26-year-old rookie in Niemi.

The Blackhawks swept the series and went on to win the Stanley Cup. In the four games against the Sharks, Niemi stopped 129 of 136 shots. His 44-save performance in Game 1 set the tone for a series that saw the Sharks once again bow out earlier than they would've liked.

About fourth months later, Niemi signed a one-year deal with the Sharks when the Blackhawks decided to walk away from the one-year, $2.75 million contract Niemi won in arbitration and made him an unrestricted free agent.

There was a bit of an adjustment period for Sharks forward Ryane Clowe.

"He made a kick save on me at the first practice and I said to myself, 'I've seen that before,'" Clowe said.

Niemi wearing some of his Blackhawks paraphernalia at that practice didn't help matters.

"It was a little different. He still had his Chicago gear," Clowe said. "He still had his helmet and his pads and a Sharks jersey on."

But all has been forgiven. After all, no hockey player is going to complain about having a Stanley Cup-winning goalie on their team.

"When someone kind of burns you like that, it's kind of nice to have him on your side," Clowe said. "You watch scouting video, but now you get to see how quick he is with his legs. You really got to get it up on him."

Niemi finds himself in a very similar position to what he had in Chicago. With Antero Niittymaki signed to a two-year deal this summer, there's no clear-cut No. 1 goaltender right now. Niemi slowly but surely took away playing time from Blackhawks starter Cristobal Huet last season and ended up playing 39 games. If Niittymaki and Niemi play well this season, there likely will be an even split of the workload with the Sharks.

For the shy, reserved Niemi, this trip to Stockholm for Sharks' two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in their 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere series has been a change of pace for him. The native of Vantaa, Finland, has received a fair share of media attention during his time here, but he appears to be more in his element and relaxed around reporters and cameras.

Niemi signed with the Sharks on Sept. 2, so he hasn't had that much time to get integrated with his new teammates. But so far he's fitting in well and the players have accepted him as one of their own -- despite what he did to them last season.

"Our organization and our players have a ton of respect for what he accomplished last year in Chicago," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We're all aware of how the hockey world works as far as the business side of it. The minute it was announced he was going to become a Shark, he came in and fit in very well in the locker room. The guys have accepted him and he's a fun guy to be around."

Niemi said he felt welcomed right away, but things were a little weird at first.

"It was pretty funny the first couple days at the rink with the players I faced a couple months before in the conference finals," he said.

"We still kid with him a bit," Sharks center Joe Thornton said, "but we're glad he's on our side now."

The Sharks will host the defending-champion Blackhawks on Nov. 24 at HP Pavilion, but Clowe can't wait for the game to be played in a different setting.

"I'm excited for when he gets back to Chicago," said Clowe, referring to the Dec. 30 matchup at United Center. "Maybe he can steal a game for us."

"It's going to be an experience," Niemi said. "It's going to be fun … I hope."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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