SAN JOSE, Calif. – Antti Niemi was a major reason why the San Jose Sharks failed to make it past the Western Conference final a year ago with his spectacular play in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Now that Niemi has traded in his Indian-head logo for a teal sweater, the Sharks are hoping he can play just as well in his second post-season as he did in his first when he helped end the Blackhawks’ nearly five-decade title drought.
“I still have nightmares of the save he made on me in Game 1,” Sharks forward Ryane Clowe said. “It’s great to have him on our side.
“When you go against a Stanley Cup goalie and he beats you and then you get him over here the next year, that’s always nice. We love Nemo. We love the way he competes. He’s a workhorse and we expect big things from him.”
Niemi delivered in the regular season, posting the most wins (32), the third-best goals against average (2.11) and the fifth-best save percentage (.927) in the league after Dec. 1. Niemi started 36 of San Jose’s final 37 games, helping the Sharks move from 12th in the Western Conference to second in that span.
He leads the Sharks into their first-round series against the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Kings beginning Thursday night. The Kings have their own goalie capable of dominating a series in Jonathan Quick.
“Being out on the west coast, he doesn’t get as much credit as he should, but we’ve got a great guy in our net, and we have full confidence in him, even if not as many people know about him,” Kings defenceman Jack Johnson said.
Few knew about Niemi before last season’s playoffs, when he started all 22 games for Chicago, winning 16 with a 2.63 GAA as the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup title since 1961.
That performance gives him confidence and a comfort level heading into this year’s playoffs.
“I don’t think it will be easy, but it is a little different having some experience,” he said. “Last year, I played 30-something games and it was my first playoffs ever.
“It was really mind-boggling. Now I know I can play playoffs so it’s a different case.”
He said that first game of the Western Conference final in San Jose, when he made the diving glove stop to rob Clowe late in the second period, was one of the most important he played during that run.
That started Chicago’s sweep of San Jose in the latest post-season disappointment for the Sharks.
“It’s nice to have him in the same colour jersey,” forward Patrick Marleau said. “We know firsthand going up against him how tough he is.
“We’re looking forward to that in the playoffs. It’s great looking back there knowing he’s there to make the big save or the easy save.”
Niemi was just the latest in a long line of hot goaltenders who have given the Sharks post-season anguish, from Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller in 2009 to Dallas’s Marty Turco the previous year to Dominik Hasek and Dwayne Roloson in the more distant past.
The Kings have a goalie more than capable of doing the same in Quick, who had 35 wins and a 2.24 GAA this season. He will need to be at the top of his game to shut down an offence with seven 20-goal scorers led by Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Joe Pavelski.
Quick has won six of his 10 career starts against the Sharks, holding them to two or fewer goals half the time. He shut out San Jose at HP Pavilion in December and was outstanding in a pair of shootout wins later this season.
San Jose managed to knock him out with four goals in a little over 25 minutes just over a week ago, but the Sharks know how formidable he can be.
“He’s usually making the first stop,” Sharks forward Logan Couture said. “Obviously we got to him that last game in the regular season, but he’s always played well against us. He’s good moving laterally.
“His pads sit up so you can’t beat him along the ice. You have to get him up. He’s quick, one of the better goalies in the league statistically and how he played against us.”
The Kings will likely need a big series from Quick considering they scored fewer goals than any other playoff team this year and will be without their biggest offensive threat in forward Anze Kopitar, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.
If the Kings are going to have success against Niemi, they will have to do better on the power play than they did during the regular season. Los Angeles slipped from sixth in 2009-10 to 21st this season on the power play despite having most of the same players.
That power-play success a year ago almost carried the Kings into the second round, as they converted 38.5 per cent of their chances and got 10 of their 18 goals with the man advantage in a six-game loss to Vancouver in the first round.
“We’re trying to work on moving more,” Johnson said. “Our power play really took a nose dive in the second half, and a lot of it had to do with standing around on the ice.
“You can be moving the puck back and forth really well, but if it’s not with a purpose, it’s pointless, and that’s kind of what we fell into lately.”