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Niemi leads Sharks to 5-2 win against Chicago

by John Kreiser

Maybe all the San Jose Sharks needed to beat the Chicago Blackhawks was having Antti Niemi on their side.

Niemi was in goal for the Hawks last spring when they swept San Jose in the Western Conference Finals on the way to the Stanley Cup. But he was in teal and black on Wednesday and stopped 30 shots by his former teammates as the Sharks beat the Hawks 4-2 at HP Pavilion in the teams' first meeting since the Hawks completed their sweep last spring.

Patrick Marleau, who had five of the Sharks' goals against Niemi last spring, scored twice in the third period as San Jose rebounded from a 3-0 home loss to Columbus on Saturday.

"I think we played a more complete game than we've played in a while," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said.

San Jose signed Niemi during the summer after the Hawks walked away from his arbitration award, but he's spent most of the first quarter of the season backing up Antero Niittymaki. He entered the game with a 2-4-1 record and a 3.93 goals-against average for his new team.

"During the warmups, seeing all the guys on the other side, it started to feel like a little more than just a normal game," Niemi said. "I think I was able to keep my head pretty calm."

On Wednesday, however, he looked more like the goaltender who went 26-7-4 with a 2.25 GAA for the Hawks before leading Chicago to its first Stanley Cup since 1961 as he helped the Sharks end the Blackhawks' five-game winning streak at the Shark Tank.

"Maybe it will set him right as far as confidence goes," McLellan said, adding that having Niemi play against his former team was no accident -- he also played Niittymaki against his former team when the Sharks faced Tampa Bay.

"We had a pretty good idea that it would be a motivating factor for the rest of the players and I'm glad to see that they showed up and played for him," McLellan said.

The Hawks' winning streak in San Jose included a visit to HP Pavilion on Thanksgiving Eve last year, when they Hawks ran off seven unanswered goals on the way to a 7-2 victory. This time, Chicago carried the play for the first half of the opening period, but the Sharks made sure there would be no repeat of that game by getting the game's first goal.

Joe Thornton took the puck behind the net, stepped to the right of Marty Turco and slid a pass to a wide-open Dany Heatley, who buried his eighth of the season at 12:34.

"I like the way we started the game. I thought we had some good intensity throughout the game. The first goal was tough. Them having that lead was important," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said."

Jamal Mayers, who also joined the Sharks last summer, made it 2-0 at 2:37 of the second period, beating Turco with a 10-footer from the right circle for his first goal.

Jake Dowell got one back for the Hawks just 31 seconds later when he drove out of the left corner to the net and put the puck in front, where it hit a skate and deflected past Niemi. The play was called a goal on the ice and upheld after a video review.

Joe Pavelski restored the Sharks' two-goal lead 90 seconds later with a power-play goal. Pavelski, playing the right point, picked off Nick Boynton's pass, eased into the high slot and ripped a 35-footer that went between Turco's body and his right arm.

Niemi kept the Hawks off the board until 3:58 of the third period, when Patrick Sharp got his 13th of the season by deflecting Boynton's shot off Niemi's right post and into the net.

But Marleau took a feed from Thornton, beat defenseman Jassen Cullimore at the blue line and blew a 20-footer past Turco from the left circle at 13:47 for some insurance. He added an empty-netter in the final seconds to wrap up the win.

"You could sense a little bit in the third period that memories of the past were coming out," McLellan said. "But I thought the poise came through. (We) found a way to score the next goal and settled down after that."

Quenneville agreed that Marleau's first goal was a back-breaker.

"We got ourselves back into it," he said, "but then they got that fourth one."

Material from team media was used in this report

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