-- When Antti Niemi
was dominating the San Jose Sharks
last season as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks
during the Western Conference Finals, there was a prevailing sentiment among Sharks players that it wasn't so much Niemi standing on his head as much as it was them simply hitting him with pucks.
Niemi stopped 119 of 126 shots during the Blackhawks' four-game sweep, but most Sharks weren't all that impressed at times during the series.
Sharks captain Joe Thornton
wasn't one of those players.
"I thought he was spectacular last year and was just hoping we'd get a piece of that," Thornton said Wednesday as the Sharks prepared for Wednesday night's Game 3 against the Detroit Red Wings
at Joe Louis Arena. "I think playing with a guy, you appreciate him a little bit more. We didn't see him last year until the four straight wins they had. You learn a lot about a guy's work ethic, and it's just spectacular. He's just a tremendous goalie."
"He was the best player in that series," Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle
said. "He made some huge saves against us. It's certainly nice to have him on our side this year."
It took a little while for Niemi to get acclimated to his new surroundings. He opened the season in a goaltending battle with Antero Niittymaki
and was coming up on the short end of the stick.
In four appearances in October, Niemi was 1-3-0 with a 4.50 goals-against average and .854 save percentage. In five appearances in November, he was 2-2-1 with a 3.58 GAA and .891 save percentage.
Niemi said he didn't get completely comfortable in San Jose until, coincidentally, he faced the Blackhawks in late November. He stopped 30 shots in a 5-2 victory and hasn't looked back.
Niemi didn't post a GAA higher than 2.38 during a month the rest of the way and went 22-5-3 after the All-Star break with a 2.10 GAA and .917 save percentage. He had a few hiccups during the Sharks' opening-round series with the Los Angeles Kings
, but he's been rock-solid in two games against the Red Wings.
"I felt pretty good both games," Niemi said. "The start is going to be big because it gives you an idea of how you're going to feel the rest of the night. If you can make a few good saves early, it helps. It gives me more confidence and makes my playing easier."
After he was perhaps the most-hated man in San Jose last season, he's the biggest reason for the Sharks' late-season success.
"He's certainly showed in the second half what kind of goalie he is," Boyle said. "He's been the backbone of our team. He's such a calm guy back there."
Niemi's demeanor is just one of the many traits Sharks players didn't get to see first-hand during their brief encounter last season. Devin Setoguchi
offered another characteristic of the 27-year-old native of Vantaa, Finland, that he didn't know about until he started playing with him instead of against him.
"Anyone who watches Nemo play, anything in tight, around the crease, he's going to get everything on the ice," Setoguchi said. "But the one thing people don't know about him is he battles and tries for everything. In practice, if there's a loose rebound, he tries to get it. It's just the way he is. He's that competitive. In a game, it translates over. It means a lot for us."
"He's certainly showed in the second half what kind of goalie he is. He's been the backbone of our team. He's such a calm guy back there." -- Dan Boyle on Niemi
Niemi has stopped 57 of 59 shots against the Red Wings and hasn't had to fight through much traffic to make his saves. His defensemen are clearing lanes when he can't see and rebounds when he can't control them. The Red Wings spoke at length Wednesday morning about getting more bodies in front of Niemi, something he's fully expecting his teammates can handle.
"It's one of the biggest things we can do there," Niemi said of clearing out traffic so he can see shots. "Sometimes it works, but sometimes the situations come so quick that it doesn't work because maybe our guy is in the lane. But I think they've been really good shots and when they're not blocking shots, they're not in the way, either."
As a goal-scorer, Setoguchi is well aware of the importance of taking away a goaltender's vision but believes Niemi handles it better than most.
"Goalies these days, if they see it, they're going to stop it," Setgouchi said. "That's just the way it is. They never really let goals in when they see it. They're too good. Nemo battles for pucks so even if there's guys in front of him, he's looking around and always trying to make the save. He's a big reason why we're here right now."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo