SAN JOSE, Calif. – Something about playing his former team seems to bring the best out of Antti Niemi.
Niemi made 34 saves for his first shutout of the season and Jason Demers broke a scoreless tie late in the second period with his first goal to lead the San Jose Sharks to a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night.
“He’s the reason we got two points tonight,” captain Joe Thornton said of Niemi. “For whatever reason he likes playing against his former team. Thank goodness for that. He played great. A couple of his saves were spectacular. We’re glad to have him on this side.”
Niemi was tested often as San Jose was sluggish at the start and also helped kill off a power play late in the third period with a toe save against Jonathan Toews to give the Sharks their fourth straight win and sixth in the past seven games.
Niemi, who helped Chicago knock out San Jose on the way to winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, got the best of his former team in his 14th career shutout.
He improved to 4-1 and has allowed only 10 goals in five games against the Blackhawks since they let him go before last season instead of paying him the US$2.75 million salary he was awarded in arbitration.
“As time goes by it gets less and less, but it’s still a little bit (special),” Niemi said.
The Blackhawks have lost three straight games on a two-week road trip as the circus has taken over the United Center. After starting the annual trek with a win in Vancouver, Chicago has been outscored 15-4 in losses to Calgary, Edmonton and San Jose.
Even a two-day respite in Las Vegas after a 9-2 loss in Edmonton on Saturday night was unable to change their luck even if their play improved.
“That’s the standard for how we want to work,” Toews said. “I don’t like the result but we had our chances and it just didn’t go in. This won’t hurt our confidence one bit. We played the way we’re supposed to play. You hold that team to one goal, you’ve played a good game. It just didn’t go our way.”
The Sharks got off to a good start on a two-game homestand against the teams that eliminated them in the Western Conference finals the past two seasons. San Jose hosts Vancouver on Saturday night in the first meeting between the teams since the Canucks won the conference final in five games last spring.
Despite being thoroughly outplayed for the first two periods, the Sharks had a 1-0 lead going into the third thanks to stellar play from Niemi and a fortuitous bounce on a power play.
Dave Bolland got sent off for tripping Brent Burns late in the second period and San Jose took just four seconds to turn that into the game’s only goal. Logan Couture beat Toews on the faceoff and the puck went back to Demers at the point. His shot hit Toews’ stick and bounced past Corey Crawford for San Jose’s only goal on 21 shots.
“It took a weird bounce,” Crawford said. “I thought it would stay on the ice but it kind of jumped up.”
The Blackhawks had a 23-11 shot advantage after two periods but were unable to convert on a number of good chances. Niemi made a good save against Steve Montador on a power play in the second period after Dan Boyle was sent off for his third minor penalty of the game. Bolland then had a chance on the rebound but missed an open net.
Niemi made up for some uncharacteristic mistakes by his defence to keep his former team off the scoreboard in the first period. Marian Hossa shot high after a giveaway by Burns in his own zone. Then with Boyle in the box for a tripping penalty, Niemi made a nice pad save to rob Toews.
Boyle then had a disastrous shift that didn’t end up hurting the Sharks. First, he fell down leading to a breakaway by Bryan Bickell that Niemi stopped. Chicago got a 2-on-1 break after a turnover by Boyle, but Niemi knocked away a deflected pass from Hossa. Boyle was called for boarding at the end of that play, but Niemi helped kill off the power play.
“He made some tremendous saves,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “He exuded confidence. We were able to survive a night where we didn’t play well.”
Notes: Demers has scored three of his seven career goals against Chicago. … Blackhawks D Brent Seabrook missedhis fourth straight game with a lower-body injury. F Michael Frolik returned after missing two games with an injured left shoulder. … The Sharks improved to 7-0-0 when scoring the first goal of the game.