Niemi gives Sharks life in Calgary

Marleau: 'Niemi held us in there for sure'

Niemi gives Sharks life in Calgary
January 20, 2013, 7:30 pm
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Goaltender Antti Niemi made 31 saves, allowing just one goal in the Sharks 4-1 win in Calgary. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

CALGARY – Sixteen shots against, eight giveaways, and a power play goal against was not the way the San Jose Sharks envisioned the first period of their season opener with the Calgary Flames on Sunday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

To a man, the Sharks looked lost, slow and downright dreadful. That is, except for goaltender Antti Niemi.

Niemi turned aside every puck he saw except for a Lee Stempniak wrist shot on the power play, keeping his team in it long enough for the Sharks to slowly but surely take over in the second period. Patrick Marleau scored twice and Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle all had two-point nights themselves as the Sharks beat the Flames, 4-1.

Niemi finished with 31 saves and was calm, cool and collected from the opening faceoff to the final horn.

“I felt good the whole training camp in San Jose, so I thought I was ready,” Niemi said.

“Awesome,” was how Logan Couture described his goaltender. “He’s been great throughout training camp, and he was great again tonight.”

It can’t be understated just how much better the Sharks were as a team after the first intermission. After those eight aforementioned turnovers in the first 20 minutes – several of which were in the defensive zone – the Sharks had just two the rest of the night and were dominant in every facet of the game against the Flames.

Head coach Todd McLellan wasn’t surprised that there was some early rust, after watching several NHL games on Saturday night. Consequently, there weren’t any abused Gatorade coolers or trashcans dented during the first break.

“We’re not going to yell and scream yet, and hopefully we don’t need to,” McLellan said. “It was more about adjustments and about simplifying things. Players obviously responded the right way. We’re making strides. We all had an opportunity to watch games last night and you could see how some of the games were played, so it wasn’t unexpected.”

Marleau was the star on offense. He scored the equalizer on a power play on a fancy feed by Thornton at 13:52 of the second, after the Sharks’ captain stripped Mark Giordano behind the net. Later in the period, Boyle found himself alone with the puck between the circles before sliding it to an open Marleau at the side of the net. Marty Havlat’s rebound goal on a Marc-Edouard Vlasic blast from the point came between Marleau’s markers as the Sharks scored three times in just a 4:18 span to lead 3-1 after two.

“You don’t normally get your first goal in January,” Marleau said with a smile. “It was nice to get on the board early. It’s one game, and we’ve got a bunch more to go now.”

He, too, gave credit to Niemi for keeping the Sharks within striking range.

“He held us in there, obviously,” Marleau said. “If he wasn’t there we would have let in a few more goals and it would have been a different game. He was solid all night tonight. Later on we gave him a little bit more help on the rebounds and cleared some pucks, but he saw the puck and was in the right position all night.”

Boyle capped the scoring with a slap shot from the high slot with the Sharks on a full two-minute, two-man advantage late in regulation.

Each player seemed to have a different reason for the Sharks’ early misadventures through the first period.

“We were a little bit over-anxious to get the season started and just a little bit of rust in the first period, to be expected,” Thornton said. “After that, we played good. We got pucks out of our zone, which we didn’t get in the first period. That’s why they had so many shots there early on.”

Couture credited a more aggressive forecheck beginning in the second period.

“The second period we came out and forechecked better and created some turnovers in their end, and played in their end,” he said. “That was really the difference.”

To Niemi, the Flames looked energized from their home opener. “They played harder, it’s their home game. They were maybe more ready to play,” he said.

Whatever it was, the Sharks quickly put the period behind them and got that all-important first win out of the way. In a 48-game season, each victory and loss will be magnified.

Thornton said: “We’ve still got a long ways to go. We weren’t our best, put it that way. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, we realize that, but starting on the road getting the first win is huge.”

Sharks notes

The Sharks won 61 percent of faceoffs. Pavelski was 9-2 in the circle, while Couture was 11-4. … Matt Irwin skated 19:06 in his NHL debut and made a good account of himself paired with Boyle. He finished +1. … Jarome Iginla had a game-high six shots. Boyle led all Sharks players with four. …Havlat had two of the three Sharks’ minors, while Adam Burish was whistled for roughing in the second period. …  Pavelski recorded two points for the fourth straight season-opener. … Havlat’s 17 career goals against Calgary is the most he has against any team. … Marleau had just 14 career goals in 53 games against the Flames before Sunday. The only Western Conference teams in which he has fewer are Columbus and St. Louis (12 each). His power play goal was his first goal at the Saddledome since Jan. 30, 2008. . … Boyle has 50 career goals with the Sharks, still the most all-time among defensemen.