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Antti Niemi to start against Blackhawks tonight – Awkward?

Nov 24, 2010, 5:50 PM EDT

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Anaheim Ducks v San Jose Sharks Getty Images

Tonight in San Jose, the Sharks take on the Chicago Blackhawks for the first time since Chicago knocked San Jose out of the Western Conference finals. Since then, plenty has changed for both teams but the one thing that unites the two teams is goalie Antti Niemi. Last year, it was Niemi playing strong in goal for Chicago and leading them to their first Stanley Cup since the 1960s.

Once the off-season began, things changed in a big way for everyone involved. Now, Niemi is the part-time starter for the San Jose Sharks after being let go by Chicago during their tumultuous salary cap hell off-season. Instead of Niemi suiting up for Chicago and trying to win back-to-back Cups, it’s Marty Turco’s job to lead the Blackhawks.

If you think Antti Niemi isn’t excited about facing off against the team that he helped win hockey’s ultimate prize and then walked away from him, you’d be fooling yourself. David Pollak of Working the Corners gets the scoop from the Finnish netminder.

“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.”

Closure for sure but with guys like Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Kane still roaming the ice for Chicago you have to wonder if they know of any weaknesses on Niemi. CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers finds out Kane knows just where to shoot.

“I’m not going to tell you guys, but I think I know what I’ll shoot,” Patrick Kane said of his shot selection. But Kane knows facing Niemi won’t be easy.

“He has unbelievable lateral movement. If you move him side to side have to pick it up. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen with that. He did a lot of good things for us.”

While all that is going on down on the ice, you have to wonder if the teams general managers will have a chat at all. After all, Sharks GM Doug Wilson signed Niemi and also tried to sign away Niklas Hjalmarsson as well this off-season. Chicago matched an offer sheet the Sharks signed Hjalmarsson to, a signing that put the screws to Chicago GM Stan Bowman to eventually walk away from Niemi’s arbitration decision because it was too costly.

The biggest thing for San Jose starting Niemi is trying to get him right. While Antero Niittymaki has been solid for the Sharks, Niemi’s been a bit of a letdown. In seven games this year, Niemi’s save percentage is a paltry .878 while his goals against average is 3.91. Getting Niemi a motivated start against his former team might be the spark he needs to get things turned around lest Niittymaki be forced into a role as the team’s full-time starter.

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