NHL: Niemi could be special for Sharks


Antti Niemi is in control of the San Jose Sharks’ net more than
Those are his red pipes to tap with his stick before
Antti Niemi is in control of the San Jose Sharks’ net more than ever.

Those are his red pipes to tap with his stick before periods.

That is his powder-blue crease to carve up after a Zamboni buffing.

This is not a one-season-and-done run anymore.

If Sharks fans weren’t sure whether to embrace him earlier this season, they should now. He received a four-year, $15.2 contract extension Tuesday, then helped the Sharks win their seventh straight game that night.

“Getting more wins made me feel more comfortable, and it makes life way more fun,” Niemi said after Tuesday night’s 2-1 shootout win over the Colorado Avalanche.

It’s rather odd not hearing the decade-long, fun-loving cheers of “Nab-by! Nab-by” inside HP Pavilion anymore. But the Sharks are again winning, the sellout crowd is still cheering, and the goaltending remains top notch.

The Evgeni Nabokov era was special. Niemi’s could be, too.

Niemi has started 19 consecutive games for the red-hot Sharks heading into Thursday night’s battle against Western Conference power Detroit.

The Sharks won the past two meetings with the Red Wings — both in Detroit with Niemi in goal — so a home-ice advantage isn’t necessarily needed for the Sharks’ cause. But they sure could improve on a 16-10-3 home record that ranks tied for fourth-worst in the conference.

Niemi agreed: “For sure, it’s our home rink, so that should be our advantage. To make it an advantage, we have to keep up our hard work mentally, like we’ve done on the road.”

The Sharks’ surge began in that first of 19 games in a row that Niemi has started. They are 16-2-1 since losing six straight. That includes a 10-2-1 road show to overshadow their 6-0-0 home perfection.

“We were struggling at one point. It was huge to win on the road,” Niemi said.

And HP Pavilion just got a lot bigger in Niemi’s future. It isn’t a layover spot for his butterfly style, knee-gliding talents and blossoming career.

“I haven’t had a long-term deal. I said that whenever I get a chance for one in a nice environment, I’d like to do it,” said Niemi, who joined the Sharks in September on a one-year, $2 million deal. “Everything here, since the summer, has been great with how my teammates and the organization take care of me.”

He’s certainly capable of greatness in the Shark Tank. Just cue up last season’s Western Conference finals, where Niemi’s Chicago Blackhawks posted a four-game sweep of the Sharks.

In Game 1, Niemi-mania was in full throttle as he stopped 44 of the Sharks’ 45 shots in a 2-1 Blackhawks win. In Game 2, the Sharks snuck only 2-of-27 shots past Niemi and fell 4-2 in Nabokov’s home finale.

Perhaps HP Pavilion’s fans still hold a grudge. There were no cheers of “Ne-mo! Ne-mo!” during Tuesday night’s affair. None after saving 18-of-19 shots, and none after steering all three Avalanche shots away from his net in the shootout.

Afterward, he entered the Sharks dressing room and headed to the area where Nabakov used to call home. Softly and with a hint of a Finnish accent, Niemi answered the media’s questions to conclude his most eventful workday as a Shark.

“In the morning, they announced the contract, then I saw on TV I was one of the NHL’s stars of the month,” Niemi said, “and I’m thinking it’s a good day, but we still needed two points (from a win Tuesday night). Now it’s a great day.”

More than points are at stake Thursday night. The Red Wings have 84 points heading into Wednesday night’s game in Anaheim, five points shy of conference-leading Vancouver. The Sharks have racked up 80 points. Both teams are gearing up for their perennial playoff runs.

These aren’t the same Sharks that the Red Wings faced Nov. 30, when Detroit claimed a 5-3 win with Antero Nittymaki tending San Jose’s goal. The Nittymaki-Niemi revolving door has become a one-way passage. Nittymaki has an injured groin, and Niemi is on to bigger and better things.

“They have a lot of talent,” Niemi said of the Red Wings. “It’ll be one more big game. Every day will be big. It’s like the playoffs already.”

So said the goalie who finished last season’s playoffs hoisting a Stanley Cup. Not a bad guy to have control of the Sharks’ goal — and perhaps destiny.

— Column by Cam Inman, Contra Costa Times

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