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Antti Niemi Could Be Final Piece For Sharks' Stanley Cup Run

PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 09:  Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates after teammate Patrick Kane #88 scored the game-winning goal in overtime to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 and win the Stanley Cup in Game Six of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Wachovia Center on June 9, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Sean HartnettCorrespondent ISeptember 2, 2010

The San Jose Sharks have inked Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi to a one-year deal worth $2 million.  Niemi's tremendous play in net helped the Chicago Blackhawks defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in last season's finals and end Chicago's 49-year Stanley Cup drought.

With Evgeni Nabokov parting ways with San Jose and opting to join the KHL's SKA St. Petersburg, the Sharks had to fill the huge void between the pipes.  Antero Niittymäki was signed on the first day of free agency, but he has never matched his solid international play during his mediocre NHL career. 

Most NHL experts consider Niitymäki a "middle of the road" goalie, but Niemi has huge upside and is coming off a playoffs in which he displayed many heroic performances in net.  He became the first Blackhawks goalie since Ed Belfour to record a playoff shutout and repeated the feat set by legendary net-minder Tony Esposito in 1974 by achieving two shutouts in one series against Nashville.

Those shutouts propelled the Blackhawks into the semifinals meeting with the Vancouver Canucks.  In a high-scoring series, Niemi out-dueled Roberto Luongo as Chicago marched on to the West Conference Finals.  It was a high-pressure series and Niemi proved his grit.

His outstanding play in net was pivotal as the Blackhawks swept the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals.  Niemi recorded two 40 plus save games during the series and his 94.8 percent save percentage against San Jose's prolific snipers was impressive.

Now it is his task to take the under-performing Sharks a step further by helping them reach the Stanley Cup Finals.  San Jose has been long-favored to lift the Cup, but seem to self-destruct every playoffs.  Their roster is loaded with stars, but the Sharks have failed to gel when it matters most.

Niemi outplayed the vastly experienced Nabokov in last year's Conference Finals and if he can repeat his stellar form in the 2011 playoffs, the Sharks have an excellent chance of finally living up to expectations and reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.

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