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Why Antti Niemi's facing the Blackhawks, and what to expect

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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Logic would dictate that Antero Niittymaki(notes) would start in goal for the San Jose Sharks against their conference rivals the Chicago Blackhawks tonight. (Preview) He's 3-1-2 in his last six starts, sporting a stellar 2.07 GAA on the season with a .919 save percentage. He's the best goaltender on the Sharks this season, and there's not even a debate to be had.

But he didn't hoist the Stanley Cup as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks last June. Antti Niemi(notes) did, which left Sharks Coach Todd McLellan with a difficult decision: Sit the struggling Niemi (2-4-1 on the season, 3.91 GAA, .878 save percentage) in what's sure to be an emotional reunion with his former mates, or play him with the hope that facing a team that felt his Cup-winning effort wasn't worth $2.75 million in arbitration sparks his revival.

McLellan has decided to start Niemi, which is going to make for an interesting night in the Shark Tank.

Why Niemi? Here's McLellan at the pregame scrum:

What an interesting concept: The Sharks played hard for Niittymaki in a Nov. 6 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and McLellan expects they'll do the same against Niemi's old mates from Chicago. The Sharks are a veteran team; one could easily see this as a rallying cry. (And one assumes that cry will be heard on Dec. 2 when the Sharks visit Dany Heatley's(notes) old stomping grounds in Ottawa.)

Where's Niemi's head on tonight's showdown? From Working The Corners:

"Of course I was really excited," Niemi said. "It doesn't really matter who we're playing against, I want to play. I felt pretty good when they told me I would play."

He said it was the first time he'll be facing a team he once played on and was asked if he saw this game as closure on his time with the Blackhawks.

"It feels funny playing against your old teammates, but it's part of the process," Niemi said. "It's one more part of closure on last year."

Of course, familiarity is a two-way street: Niemi knows most of these shooters, and these shooters know Niemi. Patrick Kane(notes), via ESPN Chicago, talked about that matchup:

Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane said that after facing Niemi so often in practice, he knows where to shoot.

"I think the advantage is always to the goalie," Kane said. "But I think I know where to shoot on him.

"I mean, you shoot on a guy enough in practice you kind of know where you can score on him. I'm not going to tell you guys ..., but if that moment comes, I think I know where I'll shoot."

As you heard above, McLellan thinks the goalie has the advantage. At least in the stats.

Psychologically, it's more perilous for the Sharks. They haven't been playing well as a team, losing three straight, and they're starting a goalie that has given up 17 even-strength goals in 7 starts.

(Of course, their struggles could be chalked up to the Metallica curse, according to Blades of Teal.)

With a win tonight, Niemi could reaffirm his status as a clutch goalie and pick up some momentum in what's been a hapless regular season. With a loss ... well, it all depends on the severity of that loss, doesn't it? Letting three pucks fly by in the first period would be catastrophic for his confidence. Playing his fellow champs to a one-goal game might still be the kick in the ass he needs this season.

McLellan's right: "The upside is much greater than the downside."

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