SAN JOSE –- How locked-in was Sharks goalie Antti Niemi on Saturday night against Chicago?
On multiple occasions throughout the 2-0 San Jose home win, the goaltender was serenaded with chants of “Nemo, Nemo!” by the sellout crowd. They didn't register with him until after the final horn sounded, and a stellar 31-save shutout was in the books.
It wasn’t just that Niemi prevented the perennial Stanley Cup contending Blackhawks from denting the scoreboard. It was the sheer number of prime scoring chances he turned away in helping the Sharks to their third straight win.
Was this one of his best career games in his four-and-a-half seasons wearing a Sharks sweater?
“Yeah, I think not only having shutout, but the way I felt,” Niemi said. “Patient and calm and relaxed. I felt really good.”
“He was a stud for us tonight,” Joe Thornton said.
His best save, or saves, came on a shorthanded Jonathan Toews breakaway in the second period and the Sharks clinging to a 1-0 edge. Niemi stopped the original shot, swiping it out of harm’s way with the paddle of his stick, and was credited with two more saves as Toews desperately tried to deposit the loose disc. Niemi was aided a bit by Brent Burns, who came sliding into the crease, as well as an early referee’s whistle.
That was just one of several brilliant denials by the 31-year-old veteran, but it stood out as the most important, according to Todd McLellan.
“It could have been the turning point, it really could have, giving up a shorthanded goal at that point,” he said. “Nemo was there for us."
Toews said: “He played well, made some big stops, two or three on that breakaway shorthanded play. Unfortunately, our big chance in the second didn't go in. It could have made a difference for us.”
Overshadowed a bit by Niemi’s performance was the play of Melker Karlsson.
The 24-year-old rookie was rewarded with a goal by charging towards the net in the first period, and late in regulation managed to swipe a loose puck ahead to Thornton with Blackhawks goalie Antti Raanta pulled for an extra attacker. Thornton deposited the empty-netter to give the Sharks, and their goaltender, some breathing room.
Karlsson now has 13 points (8g, 5a) in his first 21 career NHL games.
“He just works hard every night. He’s a smart player,” Thornton said. “Just made a great play to me sprawling out and getting me the puck. I love playing with him. We think the game the same way, and it’s been fun.”
McLellan said: "He's become a full-time player for us and somebody we believe in a lot. I feel comfortable putting him in any and every situation against some of the best players in the league. … He’s a mature player that knows how to play the game, and gives you everything he has night in and night out."
After an ugly 5-2 loss to a bad New Jersey Devils team on Jan. 19, the Sharks’ upcoming slate of facing Los Angeles, Anaheim and Chicago looked downright frightening.
Turns out, they won all three in regulation, and remain in second place in the Pacific Division while strengthening their hold on a playoff spot. They have 32 games left – 16 at home and 16 on the road.
“We're not in a position to celebrate victories over first-place teams. We're in a position where we have to move on nightly and get better and prepare for the next opponent,” McLellan said.
Getting more performances like Niemi’s would go a long way towards becoming an even better team than they’ve shown in the past three games.
“It felt great getting the two points,” Niemi said. “It was a fun game.”