VANCOUVER – A familiar, masked foe will once again be trying to block the Vancouver Canucks’ path to the Stanley Cup final.
There’s history between the Canucks and San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi. The stocky Finn was the netminder last year when the Chicago Blackhawks knocked Vancouver out of the second round of the playoffs, then went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Getting pucks behind Niemi, who’s never lost a playoff series, will be one of the challenges the Canucks face when they play San Jose in the opening game of the NHL Western Conference final Sunday (CBC, 8 p.m. ET).
“He seems to play well in big matches,” said Vancouver forward Alex Burrows. “We have to make sure we’re ready to get a lot of pucks on net and traffic and go for those rounds.
“He’s beatable. If we execute the right way, we should be all right.”
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series will be Wednesday (CBC, 9 p.m. ET).
The Canucks were 3-0-1 against San Jose during the regular season, with the lone loss coming in a shootout. The teams play a fast-skating, high-octane style with lots of offence and some heavy hitting.
“It’s going to be emotional, it’s going to be fast paced,” said Canuck defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “It’s going to be two teams that don’t really like each other very much.
“It’s going to be right what the fans want.”
The Canucks won the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history by finishing the regular season with the best record in the NHL. Vancouver had 117 points, 12 more than the Sharks who were second in the Western Conference.
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan knows the Sharks must win at least one game in Rogers Arena if they hope to advance to their first Cup final.
“It’s just another challenge for us,” McLellan said after the Sharks held a brief practice in San Jose.
“They (Vancouver) earned the opportunity to play at home (with) 117 points and being number one in a lot of categories. Our players are well aware of that. We’re not looking to steal anything, we’re looking to earn it. That’s the task ahead of us.”
The Canucks are making their first appearance in the Western Final in 17 years. It’s the first time Vancouver has advanced past the second round of the playoffs since losing the 1994 Stanley Cup final in seven games to the New York Rangers.
After some frustrating playoff losses, the Canucks believe they have the talent and mental toughness to win a championship. First, they have to get past the hungry Sharks, who reached the conference final last season.
“We have never felt this good about our team for a long time,” said captain Henrik Sedin.
“For us this is maybe the first year we felt we are a contender. We have never been this far. They went to the conference final last year. We both want to get to the next step.”
Taking that step means getting past Niemi.
The 27-year-old isn’t the flashiest goaltender in the playoffs. His goals-against average is 3.01 and his save percentage is .906.
Compare those numbers to Canuck netminder Roberto Luongo who has a 2.25 goals against, a .917 save percentage and two shutouts so far in the playoffs.
So what makes Niemi so good?
“He stops the puck,” said Daniel Sedin, who won the NHL regular season scoring title. “That’s about it.
“He’s been able to win games. That’s all you can ask for.”
McLellan said he doesn’t see a huge difference in Niemi’s play from the regular season to this point in the playoffs.
“That’s a valuable thing for him. He’s just even-keeled, never too high, never too low, an incredible work ethic, has built up the trust among his teammates and coaching staff,” said the Sharks head coach.
“It’s just steady on the rudder, nothing really fazes him.”
Niemi has an unorthodox style. He wears long, flat pads, which means he covers the entire front of the net when he drops to the ice.
During a game Niemi can look awkward. He may flop around on the ice like a landed salmon, but he’s always able scramble back into position to make a stop.
One criticism is he does give up big rebounds.
“He’s a goalie that is beatable,” said centre Ryan Kesler, who had a career-high 41 goals during the regular season.
“Any goalie is beatable if you get traffic in front of him and you get second and third opportunities. We have to work to get to those areas and work to get in front of him. We have to get a lot of shots on him.”
Niemi took the road less travelled to the NHL. He was never drafted and was signed by Chicago as a free agent.
He took over the starting job midway through last year. In the playoffs he helped the Blackhawks knock off the Canucks in six games, then swept San Jose in four. Chicago beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the Cup final.
Henrik Sedin didn’t want to give Niemi too much credit for last year.
“I don’t think he beat us,” he said. “I think it was more their team in front of him that played extremely well.
“He’s a good goalie. We have faced some good goalies in the last couple of rounds too.”
The Blackhawks decided to pass on Niemi last year when he won US$2.75 million in an arbitration settlement.
San Jose signed him to a one-year, $2-million deal. In March, Niemi agreed to a four-year, $15.2-million contract extension.
McLellan is glad that Niemi is now on his side. The Finnish goaltender was one of the main reasons Chicago swept San Jose in last year’s conference final.
“He left us frustrated many nights,” said McLellan. “He left us scratching our head trying to solve him many nights and we’re excited about having the prospect of having him playing in this series and hopefully doing the same thing to the Canucks.”
San Jose’s Patrick Marleau said as good as Niemi is, the Sharks need to tighten up defensively against the Canucks. Vancouver lead the NHL in scoring with 262 goals during the regular season.
“We have a tremendous amount of confidence in him but we don’t want to leave him out to dry too much like we did at times,” said Marleau.
“We know he has our back. We need to give him a little bit more help for sure.”
It’s a short turnaround for the Sharks, who won a nail-biting Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings in the conference semifinal Thursday. San Jose led that series 3-0 at one point.
The Canucks have been resting since eliminating the Nashville Predators in six games on Monday.
“I think that was really good for us to get some rest,” said Daniel Sedin.
“We got a few good days of practice. I think come tomorrow we’ll all be ready to go. We’ve been looking forward to this a long time. We’ll be ready.”