There is nothing worse than playing professional sports against a so called “pesky” player. For the San Jose Sharks, they were fortunate enough to make a deal at the trade deadline that brought one of the peskiest players in the game over in exchange for a third rounder. In Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Ville Nieminen proved why he is so hard to play against.
The Finnish forward connected for 15 hits (12 after two periods) in the game, setting the tone for Team Teal and creating scoring chances left and right. What makes Nieminen’s effort even more impressive is that the next closest guy in hits on the night was Jonathan Cheechoo with 6.
Nine more hits than anyone else on the ice definitely makes you stand out. Perhaps that’s why Nieminen was named the third star of the ever important first game of the series.
“He brings a lot of energy to this club,” said Joe Thornton
. “I remember playing against him and I used to hate it. I’m real glad he’s on our team.”
Not only was “Nemo” bumping and bruising out there on the ice, he also provided strong penalty killing and was one of five guys on the ice when the final seconds of the game ticked off the clock, proving that he is one of the most reliable defensive forwards on the team.
“He’s a big strong kid who loves to skate and finish hits,” said fellow linemate Scott Thornton. “He’s been a great asset to our team this year. He’s been deep into the playoffs, has won a cup and knows what it takes. He’s just a great linemate to play with. I think earlier in the year one of the knocks was we weren’t gritty enough and we addressed that by adding him to the lineup. He hits a lot, but he also takes a lot. He really plays hard on both ends.”
It didn’t matter who was out on the ice for the Oilers. If he was in the way or was along the boards trying to dig out a puck, he was surely about to be greeted by No. 15.
“He was a big physical presence out there tonight,” said Christian Ehrhoff, who notched the game-winning goal. “He had a lot of hits and it’s really good to have a guy like that on your team.”
But for Nieminen, tonight was just like every other night. Despite having an uncanny amount of hits, the winger plays gritty each and every game. It’s something that San Jose fans have become accustomed to. It makes them thank their lucky stars that he is not on the opposing team like he was in the 2003-04 playoffs.
“We’ve seen it in other Game 1’s this year that teams who had a long layoff came out a little flat-footed,” said Nieminen. “The big thing we wanted to do was get our legs moving and be physically ready. We were happy how we played today, but we have to come out prepared for tomorrow.”
There is no doubt in his mind that San Jose is the place for him. At the time of his trade, the New York Rangers were already in the playoffs and the Sharks were struggling for the eighth spot. Looking back on it now, New York was ousted in the first round and the Sharks look better than ever.
“I knew right away that this team would be a great fit for me,” added Nieminen. “I’m very happy how things have turned out.”