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Niemi's On-Ice Actions Speak Volumes

by Dan Rosen / San Jose Sharks
VANCOUVER -- Coach Todd McLellan recalls leaving the arena in a state of bewilderment each game in last year's Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.

It wasn't so much because of what guys like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith or even Dustin Byfuglien had done to McLellan's team; it was because the goalie in the Blackhawks net was turning into a champion.

Antti Niemi, now the goalie in San Jose's net, made 44 saves in Game 1, 25 more in Game 2 and another 44 in Game 3 before needing to make only 16 stops in the clinching Game 4 to wipe out his current team in four games.

Boy, would McLellan love to see that goalie show up against the Canucks in this year's Western Conference Final. The Sharks would be a shoe in for the Stanley Cup Final.

"He was very, very good in that series. He was one of the big reasons why Chicago had success and was able to move on," McLellan said of Niemi, who signed with the Sharks in the offseason and then inked a four-year extension in March. "He left us frustrated many nights. He left us scratching our heads trying to solve him many nights.

"We're excited about having the prospect of him playing in this series and hopefully doing the same thing to the Canucks."

By saying "having the prospect of him playing in this series," McLellan is simply covering his tracks and trying to avoid having an injury spell cast over Niemi by the hockey gods. Niemi will be in the Sharks' net for Game 1 Sunday (8 p.m. ET, CBC, RDS, VERSUS) and if his current playoff trend continues, beating him in a seven-game series will be near impossible, if not totally.

Niemi is 6-0 in playoff series dating back last year's Western Conference Quarterfinals. He just helped the Sharks finish off the Red Wings by making 38 saves in Game 7 after stopping 40 of 42 shots in a Game 6 loss. He had a .931 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average against the Wings.

Remember, it wasn't too long ago that this guy was driving a Zamboni at a local rink in his hometown of Vantaa, Finland and doing his service in the Finnish Army.

"We feel he's the best goaltender in the world, so I think as a team you just have so much confidence going into each and every game knowing we have a chance to win,"  Joe Thornton said of Niemi. "If we play well in front of him we'll probably win because he's that good. For the team, it's very comforting to have a guy like that behind you."

It wasn't so comforting for the Sharks last year when they had Niemi in front of them. He flat out stole Games 1 and 3, and did enough to win Games 2 and 4.

"I think it's the pressure, you get extra energy out of it," Niemi said of why the playoffs seem to suit him well. "Obviously the team has been playing well and the tougher the game, the team is being better, too."

He's still very soft spoken, so it's key to let his teammates and coaches do the talking for him.

So, McLellan was asked if Niemi adopts a different mindset in the playoffs, if he's a different goalie now compared to in the regular season, when he was pretty darn good for the Sharks, especially from January on?

"I don't see a huge difference in his play from regular season to now and I think that's a valuable thing for him," McLellan said. "He's just even-keeled, never too high, never too low. He has an incredible work ethic. He has built up the trust amongst his teammates and coaching staff. It's just steady on the rudder with him. Nothing fazes him."

Niemi's teammates are clearly comfortable with him as well, which is notable considering most of the core skaters on this team spent the past several seasons playing with Evgeni Nabokov behind them.

"There were questions coming into this season having Nabby back there for years, how we were going to react?" Dan Boyle said Saturday. "As defensemen it's pretty easy. Let him see pucks, try to clear the rebounds -- no different than every other team in the league. Right now he's at the top of his game -- he's been since the second half of the season and it makes our job pretty easy."

The Canucks know all too well what Niemi can do in the postseason. They were one of his four victims last season.

Niemi helped the Blackhawks beat Vancouver in six games.

"I think he doesn't get enough credit," Canucks center Ryan Kesler said. "He's a very good goalie and we're going to have to play him like we played (Pekka) Rinne. We're going to have to get traffic in front of him. Our 'D' is going to have to get some shots through and we need forwards getting second and third opportunities. That's the way we're going to have to play this."

Daniel Sedin probably summed up Niemi best when he was asked what challenges Niemi presents for shooters?

"I'm not so sure, but I think overall he doesn't really have any weaknesses," Daniel said. "He's still (yet) to lose a playoff round. You have to respect that."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

Author: Dan Rosen | Senior Writer

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