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Niemi to start for Sharks against former mates

by Adam Kimelman
Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said Tuesday that if he had to face former teammate Antti Niemi on Wednesday when the Hawks play the San Jose Sharks, he'd know just where to shoot.

He'll get the chance tonight, when Niemi starts in goal against the team he won the 2010 Stanley Cup with.

Niemi was the first goaltender off the ice at Wednesday's morning skate, a move that typically signifies who that night's starter will be.

Last week, Niemi talked about how much playing the Blackhawks meant to him.

"It's been in the back of my head," he told the San Jose Mercury News. "Not the thing I've been thinking of every day, but knowing it's going to come and thinking a little bit how it's going to feel, so of course it's big."

McLellan said there was no extra pressure on him to pick Niemi due to his history with the Hawks.

"Do I feel any extra pressure? No, I feel pressure to win the game," he said. "That's where the pressure comes from."

Niemi could be feeling his own level of pressure. After backstopping the Blackhawks to the 2010 Stanley Cup, he became an unrestricted free agent when the Hawks walked away from the $2.75 million he won in arbitration. He later signed a one-year deal, $2 million deal with the Sharks.

He started and won opening night, but it was one of the few high points for him this season. He enters Wednesday's game 2-4-1 with a 3.91 goals-against average and .878 save percentage in seven games. Niittymaki, who many thought would get shoved to the back-up role when the  Sharks signed Niemi, has locked onto the No. 1 job, going 7-2-3 with a 2.07 GAA, the fifth-best mark in the League.

Niemi's struggles come as a surprise to his former Chicago teammates, including Kane, who spoke glowingly of him.

"He's an unbelievable goaltender who did a lot of great things for us last season," Kane told the San Jose Mercury News. "It'd be nice to play against him, though. It was kind of tough the way he left, but overall, he did his job last year.

"He's  one of the best goalies I ever shot on in practice because he tries so hard. He'll come up to you a half-hour after practice and talk to you about a shot 15 minutes into practice. He's great in that way, for sure."

Kane also, however, said he knew where he would aim if he gets the chance at a breakaway on Niemi.

"You shoot on a guy enough in practice and you know where you can score on him and where you can't," Kane said. "I'm not going to tell you guys and have you put it in the paper, but if that moment comes, I know where I'll shoot."

He did reveal a bit of where his thinking might lie.

"I think with Antti, he's very fast," said Kane. "He has unbelievable lateral movement, so if you can get him to move from side to side, you're obviously going to have to lift it up and get it high enough to beat him. But he's one of the best I've ever seen at that."

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