Niemi shines as Sharks shut out Blackhawks

SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 23: A spot light shines on Antti Niemi #31 of the San Jose Sharks during pregame introductions before their game against the Chicago Blackhawks at HP Pavilion at San Jose on November 23, 2011 in San Jose, California. Niemi and the Sharks shut out the Blackhawks. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In what has become a bit of a holiday tradition, the Sharks and Blackhawks once again faced off against each other during Thanksgiving week. It's now the fourth year in a row that the two teams have met on the day before, day after, or on Turkey Day itself.

Unfortunately, it looked like the Sharks got their dose of tryptophan a day early this year after their first period showing.

It started well enough, as most Thanksgivings do. The Sharks came out quick, as I usually do when I get my first crack at the Thanksgiving spread. Like me, though, the Sharks slowed mightily after putting on some heavy pressure early.

Similes aside, Ryane Clowe agreed with that assessment of the team's play.

"We had a good start. The first five minutes were strong and then the third was probably our smartest period. We kept pucks going North-South and we didn't turn a lot over. The second period was a bit sloppy obviously."

Sloppy is a good way to put it. The Blackhawks weren't overwhelming San Jose, but the Sharks weren't making it easy on themselves. Brent Burns had a costly turnover which led to a Marian Hossa breakaway, and later, Dan Boyle lost his footing and let Bryan Bickell in for a break of his own. Luckily for San Jose, these miscues didn't become back breakers; Antti Niemi had one of his better periods of the year and held Chicago scoreless.

Turnovers and skating mistakes weren't the only troubles the Sharks got themselves into in the first, as Dan Boyle took two minor penalties and gave the Blackhawks early opportunities to jump ahead. The Sharks shorthanded unit, which has been better but definitely leaned on Niemi during the period, held strong and ensured an even period, at least on the scoreboard.

Despite the Sharks getting an early power play opportunity in the second, the period started a whole lot like the first ended. San Jose beat the puck up and suffered from some poor decisions with the man advantage, as they were held without a shot for that two minute stretch. Jamie McGinn had a nice chance, winning a physical battle with Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy and putting one off the post. 

As the Sharks continued to struggle, Todd McLellan started to switch up his lines, going with some more familiar combinations. The coach didn't get much time to look at his new experiment, as Dan Boyle took his third minor penalty in just a period and a half. While three minors is uncharacteristic, it's still telling of Boyle's season. He has the team lead for minor penalties with eleven so far this year, an undesirable position to be sure. Somehow, San Jose was able to withstand Chicago's pressure yet again. Niemi continued his fantastic period and played the biggest role in his team's shorthanded success. 

Chicago would get chance after chance, but San Jose's break would come later in the period. With 2:56 left in the second, Dave Bolland would be called for a hooking penalty. Barely a second ticked off the clock as the Sharks won the face-off and Jason Demers, who has found himself in and out of the lineup as of late, got a fortuitous bounce off Jonathan Toews. Towes, who himself was just getting into position after the face-off, saw Demers' shot tick off his stick and past Crawford.

With the 1-0 lead, the Sharks would get another power play off a Patrick Kane hook which would carry over into the third. Although San Jose wouldn't score on that opportunity, it sure seemed to wake a team that slept through most of the game's early goings. San Jose played a game that resembled more of what observers of the team have come to expect. They generated more offense, were more composed and matched Chicago in good end to end action.

The game was truly won by Niemi, though. Something that didn't escape his coach.

"We really believe he's starting to look and play like the ‘Nemo' of years past," said McLellan. "He's really starting to settle in. He made some tremendous saves. He's just exuding confidence right now. He made so we could survive a night where we didn't play as well."

It's a true statement, Niemi's stats have been nothing short of stupendous lately. Against his last five opponents (who include Detroit, Dallas and Chicago), Niemi has a .963 save percentage. 

"I think getting a couple of these games in a row where you face a little bit more shots and don't get so many goals against is important," said Niemi after the win. 

This is a game that the Sharks should not have won. But good teams occasionally win games they shouldn't. 

They just shouldn't make a habit of it.

So when Dad McLellan goes around the table tomorrow and asks his players what they are thankful for, they better not be the snarky teenager. The Sharks have Niemi to be thankful for tonight.

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