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Sharks blank Blackhawks behind Niemi's 31 saves

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE -- It's been five years since San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010, but beating his former team never gets old.

Niemi had a 31-save shutout Saturday, leading the Sharks to a 2-0 victory against the Blackhawks at SAP Center.

"It's still a little special even though it's been a while," Niemi said. "They're still one of the top teams in the League, so it's always good to win against them."

The shutout was Niemi's fourth of the season and the second of his career against Chicago. Niemi improved to 7-7-1 against Chicago and 6-1-0 at SAP Center, playing what he said was one of his best games since coming to the Sharks as a free agent after the 2009-10 season.

"I think not only having shutout but the way I felt," Niemi said. "Patient and calm and relaxed. I felt really good."

Sharks coach Todd McLellan gave Niemi much of the credit for the victory.

"It was a terrific game for him, and as a result for us," McLellan said. "He made some very tough saves, in succession."

Rookie forward Melker Karlsson scored a first-period goal and Joe Thornton slid the puck into an empty net with 1:10 left in regulation for the Sharks (27-17-6), who extended their winning streak to three games -- victories against the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Blackhawks.

"We believe we're a good hockey team," Sharks defenseman Brent Burns said. "It's just a matter of winning, that's all it comes down to, getting points. I think throughout the year we've had some good winning streaks. It's just about putting points in the bank every night."

Backup goaltender Antti Raanta allowed one goal on 19 shots for Chicago (31-17-2), which was coming off a 4-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday at Honda Center. The Blackhawks finished January with a 6-7-0 record.

"[Niemi] was one the reasons why we lost the game," Raanta said of his Finnish countryman. "When you play shutout, you are 'King of the Ring.' He was really good today."

Niemi came up with his most spectacular save with just over five minutes left in the second period and the Sharks leading 1-0. Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews went on a shorthanded breakaway and got the puck through Niemi's pads. But as he was falling backward, Niemi got his stick on the ice and stopped the puck before it crossed the goal line. Toews attacked the rebound, but Burns blocked a pair of shots. Toews' final attempt bounced off a prone Niemi's pads.

"It could have been the turning point, it really could have, giving up a shorthanded goal at that point," McLellan said. "Nemo was there for us."

Niemi said that as Toews moved in he tried to move out in front of the net far enough to "match his speed" early in the breakaway.

"It got through and I was able to get it back from the goal line," Niemi said. "Tried to get it with the paddle out. I couldn't freeze it and then after that I wasn't sure a couple of times where the puck was, but (Burns) was flying outside and into the net."

Toews said the puck was still loose when the play was whistled dead.

"I wasn't too happy with that," Toews said. "He thought it was frozen. It is what it is. We should have scored on the first rush."

The Sharks took a 1-0 lead into the third period on the strength of Karlsson's first-period goal. San Jose had only 13 shots through the first two periods, but they turned up the heat on Raanta with five quick shots early in the third. Raanta stoppedBarclay Goodrow on a breakaway, made a save onJoe Pavelski's tip from the low slot and caught Matt Nieto's blast from point-blank range.

Karlsson gave San Jose the lead at 5:09 of the first period with his eighth goal in the 21st game of the season and his career. Defenseman Matt Irwin ripped a shot on a rush that Raanta initially gloved, but the puck popped out and Karlsson knocked in the rebound on his second whack from close range.

"I kicked it up to (Irwin) and just went to the net and found it there," said Karlsson, who had an assist on Thornton's goal.

The Blackhawks outshot the Sharks 8-7 but San Jose outhit Chicago 11-7 in a physical first period.

Late in the period, Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell delivered what appeared to be a shoulder to Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan's head, knocking him into the boards, but there was no penalty. A woozy Hannan was helped off the ice and went to the Sharks locker room to be examined. Hannan missed the rest of the first period but returned at the start of the second.

Moments later, Thornton and Chicago's Andrew Shaw exchanged slashes, drawing penalties at 19:03.

The Blackhawks outshot San Jose 16-6 in a scoreless second period.

"We liked how we played for the first 40 minutes," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "They get the first one and that gets the crowd going. They are happy to check and contain and eliminate. We had some great opportunities in the second period but didn't get the equalizer. And we had some decent looks in the third. ... It was one of the those game where you thought you felt something was going to come eventually and it didn't happen."

Toews had Chicago's best chance to score on his shorthanded breakaway, but Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane had a great look with 1:48 left in the period, firing a shot from the right circle. Niemi snared the puck with his glove.

"He played awesome," Burns said of Niemi. "He's real sturdy back there. We feel good when he's there. We know he's there to back us up if they get a good chance, and he showed it tonight."

Former Blackhawk John Scott, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward, threw his weight around throughout the game, particularly on one shift in the second period when he knocked Kane to the ice.

"It wasn't always pretty, but we committed to playing defense for the most part," McLellan said. "You can look at the shot clock, and they lead the league in shots on goal. They shoot from everywhere. We knew we had to have a little bit of composure at times when they would get roaming around in our end, and we believed the goaltender would have to make some saves and we got that. We're pleased with the effort."

Sharks fourth-line forward Tye McGinn left the game in the second period with an undisclosed injury and did not return.

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