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Sharks getting last laugh on 'Hawks for quiet Niemi

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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It would probably be fitting for Antti Niemi to get the last laugh.

These days the opportunity looks increasingly possible. Niemi signed with San Jose as a free agent last summer and now he is a key reason the Sharks are in a heated battle for first place in the Pacific Division. He even won the NHL's first star honor for last week.

Meanwhile the Finnish-born goalie's former club, the one that thought he really wasn't worth the raise an arbitrator gave him, is in real danger of missing the playoffs entirely. So if nothing else, the second-year player seems at least entitled to a little snicker right about now, right?

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Thing is, Niemi doesn't even want to think about it, which shouldn't be surprising since everyone says he is kind of shy.

"Nemo's a pretty quiet guy," Sharks teammate Dan Boyle says. "He doesn't really talk very much, for the most part he just keeps to himself and does his job. That's fine. We're seeing how good he really is."

Actually San Jose probably already knew because as a minimum-waged rookie, he eliminated the Sharks from the Western Conference finals last spring in four straight games. Then he went on to win the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

But success came with a price in Chicago. The Blackhawks were forced to move several contracts to make things work in their cap space, dealing away worthy players at bargain prices. In Niemi's case though, Chicago just walked away when the goalie won a $2.75 million salary award.

"It was funny because I thought at first that I was going to stay there when we went to arbitration," the 27-year-old said. "Then they said they were not going to pick me up so I had to look for other options."

The award would have tripled Niemi's salary while remaining less than most NHL starting goaltenders, the majority of whom have never won a Stanley Cup. It was the equivalent of a third unit forward or defenseman salary, but the Blackhawks figured they could do without Niemi and instead gave $1 million to Marty Turco, a 35-year-old veteran trying to resurrect his career after several seasons of decline.

Antti Niemi has lost only twice in regulation time in the last 15 consecutive starts. (Getty Images)  
Antti Niemi has lost only twice in regulation time in the last 15 consecutive starts. (Getty Images)  
It wasn't a great tradeoff. Turco has been a bust in Chicago where the Blackhawks have been lingering below the playoff line much of the season, and lately the veteran goaltender has been spending much of his time on the bench behind a rookie. In the meantime, Niemi has been on fire for San Jose after both he and his teammates had a slow start to the season.

The Sharks signed Niemi and Antero Niittymaki for $2 million each last summer as they ended the Evgeni Nabokov era in goal. The plan was for the two free agents to push each other for the starting job, and they split the duties until early January when Niittymaki suffered a long-term injury. Since then Niemi has taken charge while the Sharks are playing their best hockey of the season and looking like the legitimate Stanley Cup contenders they are supposed to be.

"I think it's going pretty good right now, "Niemi said.

Coincidentally, it was about this time last season that Niemi took control of the starting job from veteran Cristobal Huet in Chicago and started that team down its Stanley Cup path. Niemi shrugs off any relation, insisting that getting into more games makes his game better.

But Sharks coach Todd McLellan said timing is a factor this season because the goaltender is finally getting accustomed to his new surroundings. McLellan said having two goalies come into a new organization at the same time was an unusual challenge that both Niemi and Niittymaki had to face.

"A lot of times teams change a goalie out but rarely do they change both," McLellan said. "Usually there's a guy who's been in the organization a year or two and the new guy can rely on him for some advice on things, but these guys had to experience it for themselves."

The veteran Niittymaki got used to things much quicker, but Niemi took about half a season.

"I'd say that's when he really started to feel a part of the team, but it's not that surprising," McLellan said. "When you think about what he went through, how many highs in a month and a half -- the Cup, the parade, going home. Then wham! he gets hit with arbitration, the award not being picked up and the unknown.

"By the time it was all settled so he had to deal with a lot of peaks and valleys and that took time to settle. Now he's feeling like a true Shark."

More important, he's winning a lot of games. Niemi allowed only three goals in winning his three games last week, giving him a 12-2-1 mark in the 15 consecutive starts he's made since Niittymaki got hurt. The Sharks are hoping that Niittymaki is back in time for the playoffs, but in the meantime they are pretty comfortable with a goalie who was blown off in the Windy City.

"He's playing as well as any NHL goalie we think," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said.

The Blackhawks might be thinking the same thing.

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