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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.

"As goalies get older, they get the ability to read plays and are ahead of the game a little bit more," Thomas said.

"So he knows the shooters, he knows the game more. There's not a lot of guess to his game."

That maturity also manifests itself in rebound control, Thomas said.

"All the goalies at this level make the first save very well," he said. "If you can control rebounds and eliminate second shots, you're at an elite level — which he is."

Ask his teammates about Niemi, and they immediately talk about how hard he works, how he competes on every shot — game or practice. That trait hasn't gone unnoticed elsewhere.

"There are better goaltenders technique-wise and there always will be, but I go back to how hard he competes," said Kelly Hrudey, former NHL goalie and current TV analyst for "Hockey Night in Canada." "That's why he has so much success.

"The key," added Hrudey, whose final two seasons were with the Sharks, "is how he battles back there, and that's contagious."<NO1>

Niemi had surgery to remove a cyst near his knee just before the start of training camp in 2011.

The surgery kept <NO><NO1>him out of all exhibition games as well as the first three of the regular season. Even when he returned, his routine was disrupted.

"He was more in a recovery mode after games," Thomas said, "not a preparatory mode."

And the knee continued to present problems. It slowed him down. When out of position, he took longer to recover.

"It was the same thing still bothering me," Niemi said. "There was nothing new, but there was no time to focus on getting the leg stronger. If we had time, we would have liked to get it stronger first, and then focus on playing, but we had to start playing right away."

An offseason extended by the lockout worked in Niemi's favor.

"People who first got to know him when he came into the league and went on a Cup run, his legs were a huge part of his game — his quickness and recovery and his ability to make second saves with his legs," Thomas said. "And that's back."