Flames Finnished by red-hot Niemi
Sharks goalie holds the fort while his team found its legs in a sluggish first period
Much like the Finnish goalie around these parts, Sunday’s steady performance by Antti Niemi was what the San Jose Sharks have come to expect from their 29-year-old netminder.
But, much like the theme in the Calgary Flames dressing room, they’d rather not make it a habit to let their Finnish netminder mop up their mess all the time.
“Well, we don’t want to see it too often,” said sharpshooter Patrick Marleau, who had the hot-hand with two goals in the 4-1 victory to open the season and spoil the Flames home-opener. “We want to be able to help him out in front of him.
“But he held us in there. If he wasn’t there, there would have been a few more goals and it could have been a different game.”
Niemi especially bailed his team out in the first period while the Sharks shook off the rust from the 113-day work stoppage and the Flames hit the ground running. The opening 20 minutes saw San Jose’s netminder go about his business, stopping 15 of 16 high-quality chances to keep Calgary at a 1-0 advantage.
The only chance that beat him was a Lee Stempniak rocket on a first period power-play. But, otherwise, it was a near-perfect night which saw him casually turn aside 31 Flames attempts.
His teammates also appreciated the early cushion — especially when they couldn’t clear the zone to save their lives or generate any momentum.
“You saw that first period,” said forward and local product T.J. Galiardi. “He stood on his head.
“There’s a big difference between going down 1-0 and 2-0. When you have a guy like that who can stand on his head and keep it at the one-goal lead, it’s a nice comfort.”
Joe Thornton agreed.
“Nemo played great, he really did,” he said. “Especially in that first period, they probably had 15, 16 shots and he stood tall for a lot of those.
“He’s a world-class goalie and we love playing in front of him, but that’s just too many shots to take early on in the game.”
At times, Niemi was reading plays perfectly and let the puck hit him (specifically, on Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay’s attempts in the third). Other times, he smartly chose to use his stick (preventing a Backlund chance early on). He also relied on the posts and crossbars (on a Steve Begin partial short-handed breakaway and after Sven Baertschi snaked his way through traffic in front and struck iron).
All in all, Niemi was satisfied with the performance.
“I felt good,” he said. “It was good for me to get some shots in the first to get into the game. It’s hard to say (what happened in the first period).
“(Calgary) played harder, it was their home opener and maybe they were more ready to play.”
The Sharks knew it, too.
In his post-game assessment, San Jose head coach Todd McLellan pointed out that Calgary executed and, in general, were faster than his club in the opening frame.
But, like everyone else, he felt Niemi saved them on many occasions.
“Tremendous in the first period,” McLellan said. “Actually, real good all night. The first 20 minutes, he gave us a chance to find legs, a chance to regain a little bit of composure between periods. And, down the stretch, there were some scrambles around the net where he was very composed.
“He gave us a chance to win and we expect that from him all year.”
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