A Tale of Two Goalies: Niemi trying to find groove

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A Tale of Two Goalies: Niemi trying to find groove

Monday, Nov. 22, 2010
5:10 PM

By Tracey Myers
CSNChicago.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. Antti Niemi has had this matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks in the back of his mind.

The 27-year-old San Jose Sharks goaltender was hoisting the Stanley Cup just a few short months ago. Now, much like the Blackhawks and his new team, hes looking for consistency and confidence in his game.

Could a matchup against his former team boost those?

San Jose coach Todd McLellan said Niemi is a potential starter against the Blackhawks on Wednesday, but Niemi said he hoped that he would be.

Its going to be special seeing those guys, said Niemi, who said hes adjusting to his new team. Its going pretty good. A couple of games couldve gone better.

Niemi has struggled with the Sharks. Signed to a one-year deal in early September, he looked to be the top guy in San Jose. But hes played in just seven of the Sharks 18 games, sporting a 2-4-1 mark and a 3.91 goals-against average. Fellow Finn, Antero Nittymaki, has taken a bulk of the goaltending starts.

McLellan said Niemis confidence level matches the Sharks, who have been inconsistent this season. But his work ethic has been stellar.

He hasnt worked his play up to that level he was at in the playoffs. Obviously hes not as confident as he was then, McLellan said. That doesnt mean he cant get there, doesnt mean hes not working toward it. At this point, he could be our hardest working player, which is a real good sign. I would be worried if he wasnt or if he was going the other way.

Fellow Sharks say Niemi has fit in well.

We havent given him goal support when he has played, so thats definitely made it more a little tough, I think, finding a flow for him. But thats more on us than anything, Joe Pavelski said. As far as working hard, hes earned everyones respect. He probably had it before he even got here.

Niemis hard work last season paid off in the form of the Stanley Cup. In 39 regular-season games, he was 26-7-4 with a 2.25 goals-against average and he usurped Cristobal Huet in postseason starts, where he was 16-6-0.

But a new deal wasnt worked out with him; and when a salary arbitrator awarded him 2.75 million in late July, the Blackhawks let him go and signed Marty Turco for 1.3 million.

I thought I would stay at first but then a couple of a weeks passed and nothing really was happening, he said. So it seemed obvious that its not going to be what I thought.

His start in San Jose probably isnt, either, but Niemi is working hard to get his game and confidence back. He said hes worked on some things with goaltending coach Corey Schwab and is feeling better with the results.

I think it all comes down from your confidence and just being patient out there and not trying too hard, he said. I think thats the No. 1 thing.

Niemi will keep working to try and get that No. 1 job back. Hes acclimated to his new home in every other way, so its probably just a matter of time until the on-ice game is comfortable again, too.

Hes putting a lot of time in his game. The last outings hes been involved in, hes getting more confidence and getting better, said McLellan. When you see how hard he works as a teammate, you appreciate him. He and Nitty, as a pair of Finns, theyre very close and they interact very well together. Were real happy with everything as far as that goes.

Tracey Myers is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow Tracey on Twitter @TramyersCSN for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.

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Five takeaways from Blackhawks' shutout win over Bruins

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' shutout win over Bruins

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins on Friday night:

1. A sluggish start.

The Blackhawks have gotten off to some solid starts lately, scoring the game's first goal in the opening frame in five of their last six contests heading into Friday. But they were lucky to get out of the first in a 0-0 tie this time.

They had 15 shot attempts (six on goal) through the first 20 minutes while the Bruins had 30 attempts (17 on goal). Fortunately for the Blackhawks, Scott Darling stopped all of them that came his way.

Boston's third line of Ryan Spooner, Riley Nash and David Backes dominated possession, leading all skaters with a plus-12 Corsi in the period.  

2. Scott Darling steals two points.

Joel Quenneville decided to go with Darling in an effort to give a slumping Corey Crawford a chance to reset, and the Lemont native an opportunity to play in front of his father away from home, where he's used to watching him shine. It's safe to say he made his papa proud by putting on a great show.

Darling turned aside all 30 shots he faced, including 17 in the first period, for his second shutout of the season and fourth of his career. He has now allowed two or fewer goals in eight of his last 12 starts. 

Asked after the game whether he will earn a second straight start Sunday when the Blackhawks host the Vancouver Canucks, Quenneville responded, "We'll see."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

3. Special teams not a factor.

In a game that featured only one goal, you'd think the way to crack the scoresheet would be on the man advantage. That didn't happen.

The Blackhawks went 0-for-3 on the power play, while the Bruins failed to cash in on their only two opportunities. Boston entered the contest by going 7-for-17 on the power play in their previous five games, good for a 41.2 success rate.

It was a nice bounce-back game for the Blackhawks' penalty kill unit, which allowed a goal on the man advantage in their previous two games.

4. Third line steps up at crucial moment.

The Blackhawks' third line of Vinnie Hinostroza, Marian Hossa and Tanner Kero had the worst possession numbers among all skaters, each registering a 24 percent Corsi or below. But when their team needed them the most, they stepped up.

With 1:26 left in regulation, Hossa ended his 10-game goal drought by burying home a terrific feed from Kero to snap a 0-0 tie and give the Blackhawks their second consecutive win. It's Hossa's 17th goal of the campaign, which ties Artemi Panarin for second on the team, and his fifth game-winning goal of the year. His 83 career game-winning goals now ranks 24th in NHL history, surpassing Mike Bossy, and remains fifth among active players.

Hossa's goal also moved him within a tie of Pierre Turgeon for 37th on the all-time goals list with 516.

Kero has six points in his last six games, while Hinostroza has two goals and one assist in his past two.

5. Despite recent struggles, Bruins in good hands with Claude Julien.

It seems like this is a discussion every year, but firing Julien would be a huge mistake for a Bruins team that fell to 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. They're still the No. 1 possession team in the NHL, controlling 55.42 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, and give up the fifth-fewest high danger scoring chances with 326, according the naturalstattrick.com. They average the second-most shots on goal per game at 33.9, and allow the second-fewest at 26.5.

To back it up, their PDO is 97.5 percent, the sum of a team's even-strength save percentage and shooting percentage that usually works it way toward 100, which indicates they're due for a fairly large correction. They're not getting bounces right now, but they're playing the right way and a change behind the bench would be a step in the wrong direction, considering Julien is easily a top-five coach in the NHL.