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Niemi continues to stymie Red Wings

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT – The way Antti Niemi played against the Red Wings in the first two games of this series, it’s hard to imagine that the San Jose goalie allowed three-or-more goals five times, and was pulled twice, in the Sharks’ first-round playoff series win over Los Angeles.


Yet Niemi was nearly impenetrable in a pair of 2-1 victories over the Wings in the Western Conference semifinals series at HP Pavilion. And though he allowed three goals Wednesday, Niemi was stellar when he had to be in a 4-3 overtime win that has given the Sharks a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven playoff series. Game 4 is Friday at Joe Louis Arena.

Unfortunately, Wednesday’s Game 3 began with a similar tune, as the Sharks’ goalie was very sharp once again. It took awhile, but the patient Wings finally solved the Finnish goalie, getting more consistent traffic in front of the Sharks’ net, resulting in three goals, including two power-play tallies.

“I think we knew they were going to come hard," Niemi said, of the Wings' forwards. "The start of the game was key, to be able to set the tone and score first, so it was big. We kept playing the way we played at home and I think we just have to be the hardest working team in the playoffs.”

Nobody has ever won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles with two different teams. However, Niemi, who won a Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks last spring, is playing like he could be the first. He has made 119 saves on 124 shots – that’s a .960 save percentage – against the Wings.

Niemi was also helped out by his teammates, who blocked 24 shots, including seven by defenseman Douglas Murray.

Iit’s not that the Wings haven’t gotten a lot of shots on Niemi. They have. But for the most part, Niemi hasn’t had any problem seeing every shot. And that’s why the increased pressure in front of Niemi was paramount Wednesday.

Still, Niemi was up to his old tricks early, stopping Jiri Hudler’s point-blank shot that was labeled for the top of the net in the first period. With the Wings on a power-play, and Dan Boyle and Johan Franzen jousting in front of the crease, Hudler ripped a one-timer from the bottom of the right circle that was snagged from midair by Niemi.

Later on, the Wings finally put a puck past Niemi, tying the game at 1-1, with 22-seconds left in the first period. With Niemi and Boyle sprawled in the crease, Nicklas Lidstrom took a between-the-legs pass from Henrik Zetterberg and fired a shot from the slot over the Sharks’ fallen pair.

The goal was the 29th power-play goal in Lidstrom’s legendary postseason career, tying the Wings’ captain with Mario Lemieux for fifth-place in NHL playoff history.

Niemi had a few highlight reel saves Wednesday. Besides the stop on Hudler, Niemi also stymied Ruslan Salei. Late in the first, the Wings’ defenseman cruised in alone and snapped a shot high, but the goalie got a piece of the puck with the webbing of his glove, redirecting it into the standings.

Nobody has ever won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles with two different teams. Niemi, who won a Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks last spring, could be the first.

The Wings built a 3-2 lead late in the second period when Patrick Eaves and Pavel Datsyuk scored. But the Wings couldn’t hold on to the lead in regulation … nor win it in overtime.

In their history, the Wings are 0-10 in best-of-seven playoff series when they start in a 0-3 hole. They have been swept eight times.

 
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