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Goalkeeper Antti Niemi's hard work pays rich dividends for Sharks
Showdown series with Kings begins with star at top of his game

  • San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi spent the free time during the labor dispute to improve his game and it has paid off. (CARLOS OSORIO / Associated Press)

SAN JOSE -- In hindsight, defenseman Dan Boyle had reason to think before the season even started that Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was about to elevate his game.

Boyle and Niemi were among the players who stayed in the Bay Area during the NHL lockout, renting ice to keep in shape. Niemi did leave for a month to play in his native Finland, and when he returned, he brought his longtime goalie coach with him for extra training.

“They were doing funky things out there on the ice, bringing in weights and doing all sorts of weird things,” Boyle said last week. “From when he left to the time he came back, it was just harder to score on him.”

The Sharks open their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series tonight against the Kings in Los Angeles, and Niemi deserves much of the credit for San Jose reaching the postseason.

Niemi tied for the NHL lead with 24 wins, had a career-best 2.16 goals against average and is a Vezina Trophy finalist for the first time.

Hampered by knee problems in 2011-12, Niemi knew he had to work extra hard in the offseason to regain agility and strength. That happened, but ask him what the biggest difference is in his play and he'll mention something else.

“Being able to be confident, patient — I think that's the biggest thing,” he said before the team headed to Southern California.

The confidence, he added, comes from “being healthy, working hard and not worrying about anything that I can't do anything about.

:Having a short memory about everything, too. I've been trying to do it for a long time, and I got better at it.”

All part of the evolution for the 29-year-old netminder who won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks at 26, then found himself in a new environment in San Jose when he signed as a free agent after the 2009-10 season.

Wayne Thomas, the Sharks assistant general manager who doubles as a goalie coach, credits “the maturity of his game” for Niemi's improved play.

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