The music person at SAP Center had good reason to play “Epic” by Faith No More after Antti Niemi’s nifty glove save on a wide shot by Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
While that particular grab itself wasn’t much, it came on the heels of a nasty save that kept Jonathan Toews from giving the visiting Blackhawks their first goal of the evening and preserving San Jose’s then one-goal lead. The Sharks had just turned the puck over on a power play attempt, and Toews coasted up the ice all alone and fired the puck right at Niemi. No. 31 stretched into an arch and fell backwards, laying his stick right across the goal line in stellar fashion to stop the puck. Brent Burns jumped down next to him to help freeze the rebound, robbing Chicago’s captain of a shorthanded goal.
The highlight-reel-worthy save was the pinnacle of one of Niemi’s best performances in a teal sweater, and carried the Sharks to a 2-0 victory over the Blackhawks.
“It was a terrific game, for him and as a result for us. He made some very tough saves, in succession,” Todd McLellan said. “Great for Nemo, we are really happy for him.”
He was clearly the better “Antti” on the evening, pitching the shutout over opposing netminder Antti Raanta. Niemi made 31 saves on the evening for his 31st career shutout, in addition to being the first Sharks netminder to blank the Blackhawks twice. “We had a lot of good chances, but (Niemi) was one of the reasons why we lost the game,” Raanta told the visiting media after the game. “You know when you play a shutout, you are the king of the rink.”
Not that the win came easy for Niemi, or the rest of the Sharks’ team. The Blackhawks played a tight-checking and hard-hitting game for the full 60 minutes, and had a plenty of chances, particularly in that second frame when Chicago outshot San Jose 15-7 and gave Niemi plenty of work to do.
But Niemi admitted afterwards that he had felt dialed into the game from the start. “The way I felt early on,” Niemi expressed, “patient, calm and relaxed. I felt really good.”
“We knew (Chicago was) coming hard into our zone and they would be there a lot,” Melker Karlsson admitted. “But today Nemo stepped up and made a few really nice saves.”
Niemi also had help from Karlsson giving the home team an early lead to give the goaltending performance a nice cushion. Early in the first frame, with a chaos of players forming in front of the opponents’ goal, it was hard to see Karlsson drive the net and chip the puck in past Raanta’s stick side before tripping over his own skates. The rookie’s seventh goal on the season gave the Sharks an early 1-0 lead.
Team Teal wouldn’t score again until the latter part of the final frame, when Raanta was pulled for an extra skater and Joe Thornton notched an empty-netter to solidify the 2-0 win. Everything in between was a mix of hard hits and defense, trying to help Niemi keep Chicago off the scoreboard.
“(Chicago) leads the league in shots on goal, and they shoot from everywhere,” McLellan said. “We knew we had to have a little bit of composure at times when they would get roaming around in our end. And we believed the goaltender had to make some saves. And we got that.”
— Melker Karlsson scored his seventh goal of the season in the last 12 games. It was his first career games-winning goal.
— The Sharks are now 9-1-1 all-time when Joe Thornton scores a goal against the Blackhawks.
— Five of Thornton’s 11 goals this season have been empty-netters. He leads the NHL in that category.