The San Jose Sharks have inked Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi to a one-year deal worth $2 million. Niemi’s tremendous play in net helped the Chicago Blackhawks defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in last season’s finals and end Chicago’s 49-year Stanley Cup drought.
With Evgeni Nabokov parting ways with San Jose and opting to join the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg, the Sharks had to fill the huge void between the pipes. Antero Niittymäki was signed on the first day of free agency but he has never matched his solid international play during his mediocre NHL career. Most NHL experts consider Niitymäki a “middle of the road” goalie, but Niemi has huge upside and is coming off a playoffs in which he displayed many heroic performances in net.
Niemi became the first Blackhawks goalie since Ed Belfour to record a playoff shutout and repeated the feat set by legendary net-minder Tony Esposito in 1974 by achieving two shutouts in one series against San Jose. Those shutouts and his overall play in net was pivotal in the Blackhawks sweeping the Sharks in the West Conference Finals. Niemi recorded two 40 plus save games during the series and his 94.8% save percentage against San Jose’s prolific snipers was impressive.
Now it is his task to take the underachieving Sharks to the next step by helping them reach the Stanley Cup Finals. San Jose have been long-favored to lift the Cup but seem to self-destruct every playoffs. Their roster is loaded with stars but fail to gel when it matters most.
Niemi outplayed the vastly experienced Nabokov in last year’s Conference Finals and if he can repeat his stellar form in the 2011 playoffs, the Sharks have an excellent chance of finally living up to expectations and reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.