SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It was late in the third period of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last year, and the Sharks trailed Chicago 2-1 when forward Ryane Clowe launched what looked to be a game-tying shot at a wide-open net on the power play.
Looks, as the Sharks learned, can be deceiving. At the last instant, Blackhawks rookie goaltender Antti Niemi made a miraculous save, somehow getting his glove on the puck and deflecting it away as he sprawled on the ice.
"I still have nightmares about the save he made on me in Game 1," Clowe said. "It's great to have him on our side. When you go against a Stanley cup goalie and he beats you and then you get him over here the next year, that's always nice. We love Nemo. We love the way he competes, and we like that he's signed over here for awhile. He's a workhorse, man, and we expect big things from him again."
Niemi made 44 saves in that 2-1 Game 1 win against the Sharks last year and allowed only seven total goals -- 1.75 per game -- in the Blackhawks' sweep of San Jose as he outdueled Evgeni Nabokov. With Niemi in goal, Chicago went on to beat Philadelphia in six games to win the Stanley Cup.
Niemi said he fully expected to be playing for the Blackhawks again this season, helping them defend their Stanley Cup championship. But after he was awarded $2.75 million in arbitration, the salary-cap strapped Blackhawks released him on Aug. 2 in one of their many cost-cutting moves. A month later he signed a one-year deal with San Jose, and in early march he inked a four-year extension worth $15.2 million.
The rest, the Sharks hope, will be Stanley Cup winning history.
Niemi will be in goal for the Sharks on Thursday night at HP Pavilion when they face Los Angeles in Game 1 of their first-round series, and they believe some of his Stanley Cup experience and magic will help them in their quest to win their first Cup.
"(The Blackhawks) won it all last year, and he's a big reason why they did," Sharks forward Patrick Marleau said. "It's nice having him in the same colored jersey. We know the first time going up against him how tough he is, and I look forward to that in the playoffs. As far as confidence, it's great looking back there and knowing he's there to make the big save or the easy save. Everybody feels good. We've got to do a job in front of him, but if there's a mistake he'll bail us out."
Niemi will face a Kings team missing its biggest offensive weapon, Anze Kopitar, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury last month. But Dustin Brown, who scored four goals against the Sharks this season, will definitely take the ice. And Justin Williams, a 57-point scorer who missed the final nine games with a shoulder injury, is practicing, and the Sharks expect to see him.
"I think they still have lots of skill there and guys who can really shoot the puck, so we've got to be ready in our own zone," Niemi said of Kopitar's absence.
Last year Niemi started only 39 games for Chicago in the regular season, sharing the job with Cristobal Huet. But he was Chicago's clear-cut No. 1 goalie down the stretch and in the playoffs, when he started every game. Niemi said starting in the playoffs in his first full NHL season was a "mind-boggling" experience.
"I thought I felt pretty good going into the playoffs last year, but still, I hadn't played in the playoffs here," Niemi said. "I knew we were a good team, and I didn't even know if I was confident enough in myself, if I could do it. After losing a first game against Nashville, it felt terrible, but maybe in the second one, getting a win, it started to give me confidence. I think the No. 2 game was a huge one, when I realized we were going to be able to win these games."
Niemi said he'll carry "a lot" more confidence into this year's playoffs after winning a Stanley Cup and surviving plenty of postseason adversity. In that first-round opener against Nashville, Niemi gave up four goals in a 4-1 Blackhawks loss. He bounced back with a 2-0 shutout, but Nashville captured a 4-1 win in Game 3. Once again, Niemi countered with a shutout, this time 3-0, and the Blackhawks went on to win in six games.
"I'm sure he feels a little more comfortable knowing he's gone through it," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He knows how long the marathon goes. He knows that there will be ups and downs in the playoffs. He's found a way to recover. If there were some downfalls last year with the Chicago team, he's found a way to recover. So all those things probably make him feel a little bit better about going into this season's playoffs."
When Niemi signed with the Sharks, he joined a team that had already signed free agent goalie Antero Niittymaki. They shared the job throughout the first half of the season, and Niemi struggled early, losing four of his first five starts. But after Niittymaki suffered an injury in mid-January, Niemi started 36 of the final 37 games. The more he played, the better he got.
"I think just coming in, just moving to a new team you might get a little bit nervous," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said of Niemi. "Obviously winning the Cup last year, it's a long summer, and we weren't giving him any run support, we weren't scoring any goals for him. He was playing good, we just weren't playing good in front of him. Once January hit everybody kind of got their groove and got their confidence back, and really he's been the backbone of this team. We feel if we score a couple goals we have a really good chance of winning the hockey game."
Niemi went 35-18 with a 2.38 goals against average and a .920 save percentage this season. In 22 playoff games last year, he was 16-6 with a 2.63 goals against average and a save percentage of .910. As the Sharks know, he had his best playoff series against them and one of his biggest saves, in Game 1 against Clowe.
"I was just sliding," Niemi said. "He had a backhand. I was just lucky to be able to get it."
Lucky? Don't believe it, Clowe said.
"The first thing I noticed with Nemo was his work ethic. That guy just loves the game, loves being on the ice, loves to compete," Clowe said. "Even at practice he hates to let goals in. There are times I think where he wants us to shoot harder. We're trying to warm him up, and I think he wants harder shots. I've never seen a goalie get so many pucks off the head, he's just diving around. I think he's the hardest working goalie I've ever seen."