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Niemi named Game 1 starter for Sharks

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan finally made it official after the morning skate Thursday at SAP Center. Goaltender Antti Niemi will start Thursday for the Sharks against the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS2, FS-W, CSN-CA).

"He's our go-to guy," said McLellan, explaining his choice of Niemi over Alex Stalock. "He's been our go-to guy for four years. He's our go-to guy in Game 1. I can tell you this, there wasn't near the amount of debate with the four of us in the coaches' room as there was with a whole bunch of you outside the coaches' room. But it was fun."

Niemi, who won the Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks, has struggled at times this season, but he had one of his best games on April 3 against Los Angeles, making 26 saves in a 2-1 victory at SAP Center.

"I think it probably had to do with the history and with the time," Niemi said. "It looked possible that we might face them. I enjoy playing against them."

Niemi is 6-6 with a 2.74 goals-against average during his postseason career against the Kings.

"Excited," Niemi said of his emotions. "It's going to be a great night tonight starting at home, playing against one of the top teams. It's going to be a hard, fast game."

Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl will make his NHL playoff debut, skating at left wing on the third line. Veteran Raffi Torres will skate on the fourth line at left wing.

Hertl returned for the final two regular-season games after sustaining a knee injury Dec. 19 against the Kings. He took a knee-on-knee hit from Kings captain Dustin Brown. Torres sustained a knee injury during a preseason game and played five regular-season games; he missed the final 17.

"Unfortunately there were a lot of setbacks and I wasn't feeling good enough," Torres said. "I could have gone out there and played, but I didn't think I was at the level where I needed to play at. Playoffs is a different story. You have to elevate your game. It's about digging deep and looking and staring in the other guy's eyes and going to work.

"These guys have done a heck of a job getting me ready. It's really only been seven months since the surgery, as opposed to last time I did it, it took me over a year to get back to where I felt good. I feel like I can be a factor out there. These guys did a heck of a job on days where I was coming in and kind of feeling sorry for myself. They kind of said, 'Hey, you can't be doing that right now. Let's get to work.' That kind of made me stronger along the way."

Last year when the Kings and Sharks met in a second-round series, Torres was suspended after Game 1 for a shoulder-to-head hit on Kings center Jarret Stoll. Torres and Stoll missed the rest of that series, which the Kings won in seven games. Hertl was playing in the Czech Republic last season.

"They just bring a lot of energy," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said of Torres and Hertl. "Raffi brings good physical play and has a good scoring touch. Tomas is just young, an enthusiastic body who's going to score some goals for us. With those two guys in the lineup, it definitely gives us a punch in the shoulder."

Kings defenseman Drew Doughty will be in the lineup. He missed the final four regular-season games after sustaining an upper-body injury against San Jose when he delivered a hit on Sharks forward Tyler Kennedy.

"It was more of an uncomfortable thing," Doughty said. "It didn't feel like a normal hit kind of thing. It wasn't bad. It wasn't anything that should have kept me out for as long as it did, but with the games not meaning much and getting ready for playoffs …

"I've been good to go. I have no issues with it, 100 percent and ready to play."

Last year the Kings owned home-ice advantage and won all four games at Staples Center, including the first two. This year San Jose has the home-ice edge.

"We need to steal one of these first two games on the road, for sure," Doughty said. "It's going to be really important. Both teams play pretty similar, similar styles of play. We just need to out-compete them. That's the bottom line. Keep them off their special teams. Their power play's really good. Shut down that big first line."

Mike Richards spent some time on the fourth line this season before returning to the Kings' second line down the stretch, and he'll center the second line in Game 1, skating with Dwight King and Jeff Carter.

"Mike Richards is our most experienced forward in terms of playoffs and this is when he always plays his best, so we expect him to," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said.

Here are the projected lineups:


Joe Pavelski - Joe Thornton - Brent Burns

Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - Matt Nieto

Tomas Hertl - James Sheppard - Tommy Wingels

Raffi Torres - Andrew Desjardins - Marty Havlat

Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Jason Demers

Brad Stuart - Justin Braun

Scott Hannan - Dan Boyle

Antti Niemi

Alex Stalock

Scratched: Matt Irwin, Matt Tennyson, Mike Brown, Bracken Kearns, Tyler Kennedy

Injured: Adam Burish (hand)


Marian Gaborik - Anze Kopitar - Justin Williams

Dwight King - Mike Richards - Jeff Carter

Tyler Toffoli - Jarret Stoll - Dustin Brown

Kyle Clifford - Trevor Lewis - Jordan Nolan

Jake Muzzin - Drew Doughty

Robyn Regehr - Slava Voynov

Willie Mitchell - Alec Martinez

Jonathan Quick

Martin Jones

Scratched: Matt Greene, Tanner Pearson, Linden Vey

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