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Sharks goalie Niemi took advantage of time off

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi didn't have to search hard to find a silver lining to the NHL lockout.

During the extended offseason, Niemi laid the groundwork for his best season with the Sharks, one that put him in contention for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender.

Niemi was in dire need of a long break when San Jose's season ended last year with a first-round loss to the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He began that season on injured reserve after undergoing surgery before training camp to remove a cyst near a knee. He missed every preseason game and the first three regular-season games.

Although Niemi played 68 regular-season games and five playoff games, he never fully recovered from the surgery or regained the strength he had lost, especially in his legs.

But by the time camp opened this season in January, Niemi had his legs and his strength back. He's been quicker and stronger in the crease.

"I think the long time with no games, it probably helped me," Niemi said. "I think the lockout, in the long run, it's been a good thing for me. I just got stronger. My legs got stronger."

Niemi produced the best regular-season numbers of his career, helping the Sharks reach the playoffs for the ninth straight year. As the No. 6 seed in Western Conference they have a first-round matchup with the No. 3 seed Vancouver Canucks. His goals-against average of 2.16 and save percentage of .924 are career bests. He had 24 wins, tied for the most in the NHL.

"He feels fresh, strong, doesn't seem to fatigue as much, and when your conditioning has improved due to the lack of injury, then you can do those things," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said.

Sharks assistant general manager Wayne Thomas, who doubles as a goaltender coach, said Niemi's improved health has made a huge difference in his performance.

"He's a guy that likes to work," said Thomas, a former NHL goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. "That's part of his preparation. It seems obvious, but some guys during the season like to mentally prepare and figure they're already physically prepared. But he likes to work between starts. Last year he wasn't able to do that, and I think that affected the mental part of the game, too."

Early last summer, Niemi did most of his work off the ice, concentrating on getting stronger and healthier. During the lockout he played 10 games in his native Finland before returning to San Jose, where he continued working with a personal coach and paying for his own ice time at a local rink.

"He definitely put a lot into the jar, and he's obviously got a lot to take out of it," Thomas said.

Niemi appeared in 43 of the Sharks' 48 regular-season games. As they made their playoff push, he started 24 straight games, a streak that ended when they clinched a postseason berth on April 23 with a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars.

"He plays his best hockey when he plays a lot, and he's proven it year after year after year," McLellan said.

After the Sharks defeated the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 in a shootout earlier in that stretch, captain Joe Thornton was asked if that was Niemi's best game.

"He's been great for a long time," Thornton said. "Last night he was great, tonight he was great. Three games ago he was great. Every night he gives us a chance to win. I think he's the best goalie in the world."

As Niemi worked his way back into top shape during the offseason, he concentrated on a more modest goal.

"I think every year there's been really hot streaks, but I think what's been my goal is to be as consistent as possible, because I know my top level is good enough," said Niemi, who won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks three years ago. "So I think it's being there as often as I can. I think it's been the most consistent year, for sure. That's what I wanted."

Forward TJ Galiardi said Niemi has been the Sharks' rock all season.

"Nemo's just really calm and in the zone," Galiardi said. "He's the clear Vezina guy, if you think about it. If he was playing in a big market, like in a Canadian city, you wouldn't stop hearing about him. That's how good he's been.

"Even when we went that month or month-and-a-half of playing terrible hockey, if it wasn't for him we would have lost every single one of those games, blown out. You can't say enough about Nemo. He's unreal. Having that confidence that you got a goalie in there that's going to make that save for you just makes everyone around him better."

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