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Niittymaki aims to push Niemi for playing time

by Brian Compton
When Antero Niittymaki signed a two-year deal with the San Jose Sharks on July 1, his hope was that he'd be the club's new No. 1 goaltender.

But competition arrived in the form of Antti Niemi, who helped the Chicago Blackhawks win their first championship in 49 years, only to be let go after the team declined to accept his $2.75 million arbitration award. Two months after Niittymaki signed on the dotted line, Niemi agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with San Jose.

"Obviously when it first happened, you weren't jumping up and down," Niittymaki told "I'm not going to cry about it. It's part of the business. If they feel like it can help the team, they should do it. We all want to win here. If they feel like it can help us get where want to go, it's a good thing."

Niittymaki, 30, appeared in 49 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season and posted a winning record despite the fact that his club missed the playoffs. Niittymaki went 21-18-5 with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. 

"I had a good time in Tampa ... they gave me an opportunity to play a lot," Niittymaki said. "It was a fun year trying to make the playoffs. Obviously, everybody wants to play on a team that really has a chance to go all the way. It's exciting."

But Niittymaki will need a strong training camp with the Sharks as he battles for playing time now that Niemi is in the fold. The latter went 26-7-4 with a 2.25 GAA for the Blackhawks during the regular season before earning all 16 wins for Chicago during the postseason en route to the Stanley Cup.

Niittymaki, though, remains confident.

"It's going to be a healthy competition, I believe," Niittymaki said. "I can push him and he can push me. Hopefully that will benefit the team. It can help us win a lot of games. I'm sure it's going to be fun."

Due to salary cap restrictions, Chicago was forced to either trade or allow several key players to leave via free agency this summer. Along with Niemi, players like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and John Madden all found new homes.

Little did Niittymaki know that he'd end up being directly affected by the situation.

"I don't know if it's surprising ... it seemed like there was a lot of talk about that during the playoffs," Niittymaki said. "I think everybody kind of expected that. But I think it's kind of weird to see things like that happen. You have good players and you just have to get rid of them because you can't keep them. It's kind of a weird situation. But that's how it is and you have to live with that."

As far as how much playing time Niittymaki will receive this season, that remains to be seen. The Finnish goaltender said he's yet to have a conversation with Sharks coach Todd McLellan about one of the biggest questions surrounding the club heading into training camp.

"I haven't talked to him about that at all," Niittymaki said. "We'll kind of just see what happens, I guess. I don't know if they have a plan -- at least I haven't talked about that with him."

Whatever the plan may be, Niittymaki is excited to be on a team that always seems to find itself near or atop the Western Conference standings on an annual basis. Whether it's Niittymaki or Niemi between the pipes, the Sharks are going to have a chance to win every night.

"I'm sure everybody knows how well they've done the last couple of years," Niittymaki said. "I'm really excited. Hopefully everything goes well."

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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