CHICAGO - Antti Niemi felt so familiar with the United Center on Thursday night that he had to remind himself not to skate to the wrong end of the rink in his third start against the Chicago Blackhawks, his former team.
He also wondered if maybe the first period was really the second a couple of times, seeing as he started the game opposite of where he used to start as the rookie goalie who helped the Hawks win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years last spring.
There was no mistaking Niemi's white-and-teal jersey, however, as the former Hawks goaltender made 26 saves and beat his old team for the third time this season as San Jose beat Chicago 5-3 in front of 22,112 fans - some of whom crafted signs welcoming Niemi back to the Windy City.
"Seeing those made me feel really happy," said Niemi, who left last summer as an unrestricted free agent after Chicago opted to walk away from his arbitration award. "It was a funny feeling (being back). Flying into O'Hare, seeing the skyline and then seeing the Blackhawks trainers this morning … it made it feel like a little more than just one game."
It probably feels that way for the Hawks, too.
Chicago dropped its second straight game and first since losing captain Jonathan Toews to a shoulder injury that's expected to keep him out for two weeks. Despite getting goals by Troy Brouwer and Brian Campbell in the final 23 seconds of the second period to get even at 3-3, the Hawks (20-16-3) couldn't turn that momentum into another goal.
Niemi stopped all 11 shots he faced in the third, while San Jose broke the tie on when Joe Thornton tipped in Marc-Edouard Vlasic's point shot at 7:13.
Ryane Clowe added an empty-netter with 48 seconds left after the Hawks lost a crucial faceoff with the extra skater. That completed the scoring and gave Niemi yet another good memory of playing against his former team.
Scott Nichol, Benn Ferriero and Dany Heatley scored San Jose's other goals, while Patrick Sharp had his 21st for Chicago.
Vlasic and Dan Boyle each added a pair of assists for the Sharks (20-12-5), while Heatley added an assist on Thornton's goal for a two-point game of his own. That was a relief for Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who talked before the game about needing his "Big Three" of Thornton, Heatley and Patrick Marleau to produce more during even-strength situations.
"We expect them to carry and lead the team," McLellan said. "They have in the past and we expect them to do it again. They've been very, very good in power play situations. They haven't been as good as they're capable of in 5-on-5 play, both offensively and defensively. The challenge is out there for them in the second half to improve in that area. As they go, we go."
Afterward, McLellan praised "The Big Three" for a solid game in all phases.
"I thought they were much better," he said. "They were involved physically. They blocked shots. They backchecked hard. It was good to see."
What wasn't as good to see for both McLellan and Hawks coach Joel Quenneville were all the penalties -- leading to four power-play goals.. Chicago finished 2-for-4 on the power play, while San Jose went 2-for-5.
What might have irked Quenneville the most was the kind of goals the Sharks scored on the power play -both Ferriero and Heatley scored on open looks after a great pass on Ferriero's and a rebound for Healey right in front.
On both goals, Marty Turco was out of position and left vast expanses of net open to put the puck.
"Obviously our (penalty kill) has struggled this year, but giving them those 'tap-in' type goals is something we need to get out of our game," Quenneville said.
Campbell pointed to the Hawks' lack of discipline as another issue - having penalties help waylay them for a second straight game.
"We battled back and knew we were in for a dogfight in the third period," Campbell said. "The effort was there, but I don't think sometimes the smarts were there."
Sharp and Nichol traded goals late in the first period to make it 1-1 heading into the first intermission. Sharp scored on a power-play at 15:44, but Nichol tied it by scoring his fourth of the season at 18:54.
Ferriero's fourth goal of the season came during a two-man advantage and gave the Sharks a 2-1 1:46 into the second period. He finished off a cross-crease pass from Logan Couture by hitting a half-empty net.
Heatley's 15th goal came after a Nick Boynton slashing penalty and made it 3-1 San Jose with 6:14 left in the second. Turco made a pad save on a blast from the left circle by Jason Demers, but the puck kicked out to Heatley for an easy putback.
Brouwer and Campbell got the Hawks back into the game in a flash to end the period. Brouwer scored his 10th goal at 19:37 during yet another power play, and Campbell followed with his second goal of the season just a second before the horn sounded.
Niemi said he was a little rattled but got a chance to re-focus during intermission. He played a stellar third period and helped the Sharks flip the script from the Western Conference Finals last spring - when he led the Hawks to a sweep of San Jose.
"Maybe it would have been tougher to continue if there were still half a period left," Niemi said. "(Instead) you come in here and forget about it."