Antti Niemi shuts down former team with impressive 34-save performance, earns first shutout against Chicago Blackhawks

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Thursday, November 24, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Although the casts have changed slightly, a 2010 Western Conference Final rematch with the Chicago Blackhawks could be looked at as a statement game, an opportunity to offer an unsolicited exculpation to a playoff rival. It could also be looked at as a measuring stick game, a chance to evaluate where the Sharks are at against a team tied for first place in the Western Conference, albeit a look at two clubs trending in opposite directions. The Blackhawks were coming off a pair of losses in Calgary and Edmonton, a 2-game stretch where they were outscored by 10 goals (14-4). San Jose had won 4 of it’s last 5 contests, including critical W’s against Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Detroit. Wednesday night’s San Jose vs Chicago contest turned out to be something completely different, a tight checking play in three acts. It began with a large momentum swing in the first period. The Blackhawks opened up the ice with speed and tried unsuccessfully to wrest control of the second, and in the finale the Sharks defense lead a solid 20-minute effort for the win.

The lead performer on both sides of the ice was one Antti Niemi. A sparkling 34-save performance was Niemi’s first shutout of the season, and the first of 14 career shutouts recorded against his former team. Among elite NHL goaltending, Niemi ranks at or near the top when it comes to speed getting down and covering the lower portion of the net. Again and again the Blackhawks tested him there. Again and again, Niemi came up big. The first came with defenseman Dan Boyle in the penalty box. Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp moved the puck high to low to open up a shooting lane in front. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews tried to bury a slick feed, but Niemi adjusted position on his knees and kicked saved the puck out of the zone. “He was the first star I’m sure. We really believe he’s starting to look and play like the ‘Nemo’ of years past,” San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said after the game. “He’s really starting to settle in. He made some tremendous saves, not a lot of rebounds. Just exuded confidence, and our guys were able to survive a night where we didn’t play very well.”

More than just settling in, Niemi settled down his teammates and covered for mistakes that could have broken the game open for Chicago early. He shut the door on 3 breakaway opportunities against inside of the first 30 minutes. The Sharks had their foot on the gas to start the first period. A pair of shots by Burns and Pavelski in front were directed wide, but as Chicago tried to move the puck up ice they stalled or turned the puck over repeatedly at their own blueline. On a subsequent San Jose breakout, Brent Burns lost an outlet target and turned the puck over to Marian Hossa in front of his own net. In tight, Hossa tried to hesitate on a forehand to backhand move. Niemi didn’t bite. Hossa sailed a shot over the net, a sign among NHL shooters that there was little room to shoot at. Later in the period Dan Boyle fell down on a Chicago rush opening up a breakaway for left wing Bryan Bickell. Bickell came in with a slower, shootout-type stroll. As he tried to snap a shot 5-hole, Niemi ate him for aamiainen (Finnish for breakfast). Hossa was stoned again in the second with a slick pad save. Niemi noted his familiarity with several of his former teammates. “You get out there and maybe recognize who’s coming and think who’s a shooter and who’s not,” he said. “I think some of those I was expecting a shot and it came.” In his last 5 starts, Niemi has registered 5 wins, a 1.20GAA, .962SV% and 1 shutout.

The Sharks successfully killed two Boyle penalties in the first period, but after a nice defensive play by Patrick Marleau they would have an opportunity to flex the NHL’s 4th best power play (22.2%) early in the second period. The power play was less than successful. Dave Bolland won a defensive zone faceoff against Joe Thornton. Then the Blackhawks recorded the lone shot on goal, while San Jose registered 3 turnovers. Jamie McGinn, who unleashed a spin-o-rama down the right wing trying to create space in the first period, pinged a wrist shot off the post from 30 feet out in the second. Skating with speed and a somewhat large mean streak, McGinn also leveled defenseman Nick Leddy with a shoulder check up high. At times McGinn could be seen with a burst of speed trying to jump up for a shot on goal. Occasionally that left him out of position, but as the 4th year forward’s career progresses he is going to zero in on the sweet spot. Keeping a heavy stick on the ice, and getting quick shots on goal are the keys to unlocking his offensive potential. It is much easier to back off an NHL defenseman with a shot than a shoulder check. Sometimes the harder you hit a defenseman, the harder they want to hit back.

Defenseman Dan Boyle took his third penalty midway through the second period. Todd McLellan utilized more of his lineup on the penalty kill to start the season, but started cycling in top forwards when that area of special teams struggled. San Jose utilized a diamond penalty kill formation for most of the game against Chicago. The two defenseman and low forward in the diamond remained tight around the net, while the point diamond forward challenged the shooter and/or entry into the zone. It has the potential to address penalty kill problems that has seen the unit fall to at or near bottom of the league. Currently San Jose is 28th at 73.6% (53-72), ahead of only Columbus (73.6%) and Chicago (73.5%). In past regular seasons and playoffs, the Sharks got a little out of sorts when the defenseman roamed too high on the PK to cover their man. Thornton kicked off the penalty kill with a solid play that nearly drew a penalty on Chicago. Instead of carrying the puck to center ice and dumping it in, he held on to possession and nearly drew a hooking call. A pair of Niemi saves shorthanded finished off the third straight successful PK of the night.

San Jose was battling bad bounces missed passes, while Chicago was starting to put it together. They spread out the ice, used crisp passes and speed to carry the action later in the second period. In between Blackhawk rushes, the Sharks generated their best offensive sequence of the game after Joe Pavelski kept the puck in at the left point. Vlasic dumped the puck down low off of the new end boards. Joe Thornton chopped a seeing-eye pass in front. Pavelski launched himself at the front of the net but was knocked to the ice. Keeping the pressure on, an offensively re-invigorated Marc-Edouard Vlasic unleashed a low point shot on goal, but this time Patrick Marleau was knocked to the ice driving for the puck.

Chicago afforded San Jose another power play opportunity when Dave Bolland was sent off for hooking at 17:04. Four seconds later, the puck was in the back of their own net for the only goal of the game. Logan Couture, who had a quiet night otherwise, drew the faceoff to a standstill against Toews. Ryane Clowe beat his man to the puck, directing it back to Demers. Demers unloaded a slapshot from 53-feet out that deflected off of a pair of Blackhawks and by Corey Crawford. It was his first goal of the season. “(Clowe) got it back to me and it was rolling, but you always want to shoot a rolling puck because you never know where it’s going and neither does the goalie. I got a good bounce off it,” Demers said.

Patrick Kane took another hooking call at 18:52, allowing the Sharks to start the third with the man advantage. Despite the 1-goal lead, Chicago carried the bulk of the play in the first two periods. San Jose’s defense looked to change that in the third. Brent Burns lead a rush up ice that was cut short when Joe Thornton made a pass to an empty point. Then defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic carried the puck up ice and got in front of the net before Chicago created a turnover. A diving keep-in by Douglas Murray lead to an extended cycle down low. A subtle change late in the game, San Jose was less aggressive on the deep forecheck, forcing Chicago to skate through 5 bodies in order to create offense. Antti Niemi and Ryane Clowe combined for key defensive stops late in the game. With Joe Pavelski in the box at 13:54 for goalie interference, Antti Niemi made a goalmouth stand on Jonathan Toews’ best power play scoring chance of the night. Ryane Clowe did his part with Corey Crawford pulled for the final minute of play. After Jonathan Toews won an offensive zone faceoff, Clowe beat Hossa to the open puck to dump it down and drain the remaining time off the clock.

“We had a good start. The first five minutes were strong and then the third was probably our smartest period,” Ryane Clowe said of the Sharks 6th win in 7 games. “We kept pucks going North-South and we didn’t turn a lot over. The second period was a bit sloppy obviously. But that’s why Niemi is paid the big bucks. He played great tonight. He was obviously our first star and the reason we won tonight.”

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