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Niemi shows why Sharks wanted him

by Roger Phillips
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Losing one of their top defenseman to a first-period injury took some of the air out of the San Jose Sharks. Antti Niemi made sure the loss of Ian White didn't cost the Sharks the game.

White was driven into the glass by Los Angeles center Jarret Stoll late in the opening period and didn't return, resulting in a lot of ice time for the Sharks' five remaining defensemen. It also put more pressure on Niemi, who met every challenge until Joe Pavelski's goal 14:44 into overtime gave the Sharks a 3-2 series-opening victory on Thursday night.

"Nemo showed why he's one of the best goaltenders in the National League and why he won a Stanley Cup," coach Todd McLellan said. "We feel very comfortable with him in the net."

The immediate effect of White's absence was added ice time for the rest of the Sharks defense. Dan Boyle wound up playing an exhausting 35 minutes, and Douglas Murray, Jason Demers and Marc-Edouard Vlasic all played more than 27.

The Sharks dominated the first period but lost most of their momentum in the second, when the Kings outshot them 16-9. McLellan said White's absence – and the effect it had on the rest of the defense – had much to do with the change in the tenor of the game.

"I thought for a time in the game, we lost momentum maybe because of it," McLellan said. "(The Kings) sensed it. They went after it. The fact that we were able to recover in the third period and overtime is rewarding."

The Sharks might not have made it to overtime had it not been for Niemi, who made 34 saves. The biggest save came early in the third period when the Kings broke into the zone on a 2-on-1. Kyle Clifford drove to the net and fired a point-blank shot, but Niemi was able to slide across the crease and use his pad to keep the puck out of the net, preserving a 2-2 tie.

Niemi did what the Sharks hoped he would do when they signed him last summer -- not long after he helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

"He played excellently," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "He's been here, done that."

The Sharks are hoping Niemi – who helped Chicago sweep them in last year's Western Conference Finals -- will be one of the pieces that finally leads them to the Stanley Cup. The Sharks were never quite able to climb that mountain during the Evgeni Nabokov era.

Niemi's not worried about any history. A year ago, he said, he figured he had many years ahead of him in Chicago. When the salary cap forced the Blackhawks to part with him, Niemi simply wanted to find a good second option.

"When it seemed they wouldn't keep me, I wanted the best team for me," Niemi said. "I think we nailed it."

After the game, the Sharks' thoughts turned to White, whose status for Saturday's second game and beyond is up in the air. If White is unable to play, McLellan suggested that Kent Huskins or rookie Justin Braun will take his place.

Kings coach Terry Murray said during his postgame news conference that he had yet to have a good look at the replay. The Sharks, on the other hand, made their feelings clear:  Even though no penalty was called on the play, they want the NHL to take a look at the hit.

"I didn't like it," Boyle said. "I don't know that Stoll is that kind of guy. But to drive an elbow in there … that's what the league is trying to get rid of."

Murray said, "That's something they talk about getting out of the game. It's not even that he's turning, he was standing when he was pushed into the boards. He didn't come in that violently, but still his head went straight into the Plexiglas."

Added McLellan: "I thought (Stoll) deserved a penalty. The good news for us is the League is looking at these things. The bad news is we lost a very good defenseman we depend on. It's disappointing. He was missed on the ice."

Stoll said it was just an unfortunate incident.

"He was a little low there," Stoll said. "I don't know what he was doing, if he was reaching for a puck or what. He was right against the boards, too, and he was a little low. I just finished my check on him, and it ended up pretty bad for him. I hope he's all right. You hate to see a guy get hurt, regular season or playoffs. I definitely wasn't trying to hurt him."

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