CHICAGO -- The prevailing wisdom around the NHL these days is that Antti Niemi is a better goaltender now than he was when he backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010.

He doesn't disagree.

"Well, I think I work every day to be a better goalie, so I should be a better goalie," he said. "And I think I've got lots of experience, so I would say so."

Sunday evening, Niemi is expected to be in net for the Sharks as they face those same Blackhawks to wrap up a five-game trip. A victory would give San Jose a 4-0-1 record on the geographically challenged journey that saw it play each successive game in a different time zone while zig-zagging back and forth across North America.

This will be Niemi's 12th game against the Blackhawks since signing with the Sharks as a free agent less than three months after winning the Stanley Cup here. Since then, he's had mixed results against his former team -- a 5-5-1 record, 2.84 goals-against average and .915 save percentage -- though he lost all three matchups last season.

The wheels were set in motion for Niemi to become a Shark when San Jose general manager Doug Wilson signed Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a four-year, $14 million offer sheet. The Blackhawks matched that, but no longer had room for Niemi under the salary cap and he was free to sign elsewhere.

Statistics support the case that Niemi has improved his play since leaving Chicago after his rookie season.


Advertisement

That year, he had a 26-7-4 regular-season record, with a .912 save percentage and a 2.25 goals against average. In the championship playoff run, he went 16-6 though his goals-against average jumped to 2.63 and his save percentage dipped slightly to .910.

Last season, Niemi finished third in the Vezina Trophy balloting after posting a 24-12-6 record allowing an average of 2.16 goals per game with a .924 save percentage. This year, he is 10-2-5 with a .918 save percentage and 2.13 goals- against average.

Those numbers include a five-game stretch when he gave up 18 goals, the Sharks went 0-4-1 and coach Todd McLellan said Niemi needed to be sharper, just like the rest of his teammates.

Since then, the Sharks have gone on a three-game winning streak, though backup Alex Stalock has been in goal for two of those, with Niemi holding down the fort in Vancouver before the Sharks offense came alive and San Jose emerged with a 2-1 overtime win.

Did Niemi feel that pressure from Stalock's strong performances contributed to his own improvement in the Vancouver game?

"He's played well," Niemi said of Stalock, "but I'm just trying to play well when I'm in the net. I just have to focus on myself."

Then he relented when the question was rephrased.

"It's hard to say," Niemi said after a pause. "It can be. Maybe."

  • The Sharks had Saturday off, so there's really no way to know what McLellan has in mind for his forward lines against the Blackhawks. But he did say Friday night that he liked the mix in San Jose's 3-1 win in Edmonton.

    McLellan moved James Shepherd onto a line with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau and put Tyler Kennedy on the third line with Joe Pavelski and John McCarthy. The fourth line consisted of Matt Nieto, Andrew Desjardins and Mike Brown while veteran Marty Havlat was a healthy scratch.

    "I thought it was a good night for us," the coach said.

    For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks.

    sunday's game
    Sharks (13-2-5) at Chicago (13-3-4), 4 p.m. CSNCA