Niemi Shines in Shutout Performance

Sharks netminder Antti Niemi is probably the team’s most challenging interview for reporters. Not only is Niemi soft-spoken with the media, but he still has a thick Finnish accent and he certainly isn’t one to ramble on, especially about himself.

No, no, Niemi does his talking on the ice.

And on Wednesday night in San Jose, Niemi should have been the first, second and third star of the game. Niemi made 34 saves in total, backstopping the Sharks to a 1-0 victory over his former club, earning his first shutout of the season.

Niemi not only turned away multiple breakaway opportunities but the Blackhawks were swarming the San Jose end for the majority of the game, creating plenty of good looks including numerous second and third opportunities. At the other end the Sharks only managed 21 shots on Chicago’s starter Corey Crawford. That 34-21 tilt in shots is more than an adequate barometer for how the game went.

With the exception of a strong first few shifts to open the contest, the Sharks were more often than not on their heels and Niemi had to be the clear cut first star of the game for the Sharks to have come away with the two points.

If anybody else on the ice deserved to be a “star” of the game it was certainly Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa. The All-Star forward was all over the ice against San Jose as he broke lose for two dynamite chances on Niemi only to be denied on all three of his shots. Hossa ended up as the game’s third star with the game’s lone goal scorer—Sharks defenseman Jason Demers—earning the second star.

First star? Antti Niemi.

For those who may not remember, Niemi backstopped the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship as a rookie back in the 2009-10 campaign but Chicago deemed him too expensive the following offseason when the Sharks snatched him up as a free agent.

Not surprisingly, Niemi has continued to be a top caliber goaltender since winning it all with the Blackhawks—especially when he matches up with his former employers. Wednesday’s shutout marked the fifth time Niemi has laced up the skates against the Blackhawks. He now owns a 4-1 record with a .930 save percentage in those five games.

Niemi is clutch. There is no denying that. He is also an elite goaltender in the NHL. There is no denying that. For many different reasons he doesn’t get the clout he deserves. Could be because of his soft spoken nature or the fact he now plays on the west coast. It could be a number of things but for whatever reason his name is never one of the first to come up in the conversation when hockey followers talk “elite” goaltenders. He’s not Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Roberto Luongo or Tim Thomas.

But quietly, Niemi is a big time producer and winner for both the Blackhawks and Sharks. He may not have the elite numbers just yet, but  a career .916 save percentage is nothing to sneeze at. That percentage is a higher mark than that of legendary Devils netminder Martin Brodeur and the aforementioned Ryan Miller. Combine Niemi’s save percentage with a 6-1 record in postseason series and how can you not include him in the elite category?

All he does is give his team a chance to win night in and night out, yet somehow people still seem to doubt him. Despite backing up his Cup winning performance with a .920 save percentage in 60 games for the Sharks last season, plenty of Sharks fans told me they still weren’t sold on Niemi being “the guy”.

Certainly Niemi’s .896 save percentage last postseason doesn’t sound pretty but considering the 2010-11 Sharks defense was much weaker than the 2009-10 Blackhawks defense, it is extremely unfair to judge Niemi on a mere 18 games against three strong playoff foes with a mediocre defense corps in front of him.

His regular season numbers from a year ago should have been a much more valued indicator of his capability levels. Once he finished that campaign in such impressive fashion, this writer was sold on Niemi being a true elite No.1 netminder in this league.

There have been too many instances to count where goalies have just been flashes in the pan. One good season and then nothing. Hence what we “experts” look for is if the player can do it again. Can he repeat that performance for a second season? In the 2010-11 regular season, Niemi’s performance answered that question with an emphatic YES.

But the poor numbers from last year’s postseason caused some stir about the goaltending situation over the offseason and a slow start to the current season only made those doubters louder.

However, sooner or later those critics will be left without any ammunition. Niemi may be on his way to a label as a notoriously slow starter but when you win, nobody remembers how you start. And Niemi is a winner through and through.

Plus it doesn’t hurt to be on a statistical roll as well. With the victory over the Blackhawks Niemi is now 5-0-0 in his last five games with a .963 save percentage upping his season totals from 4-2-1 and .892 to 9-2-1 and .923 respectively.

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