SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Antti Niemi delivered the kind of performance in goal that haunted the Sharks all last summer – only this time he did it in a San Jose sweater.
Niemi made 33 saves in his second straight stellar outing and defensemen Ian White and Niclas Wallin scored their first goals of the postseason to help the Sharks take a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series with a 2-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.
“We like him on our side a lot better,” forward Dany Heatley said. “He’s a steady guy. He makes the saves he should make; he’s in position. And he makes a lot of saves he shouldn’t make. He changes games for us sometimes.”
Niemi helped kill off three penalties in the opening half of the first period and came up with countless big saves in the final two periods.
He looked like he did a year ago when he helped Chicago sweep San Jose in the conference finals on the way to a Stanley Cup title instead of like the goalie who got pulled twice in the opening round against Los Angeles.
“He’s spectacular,” Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. “He’s the reason why we’re in this postseason and it feels like every time he’s in the net. he gives us a chance to win.”
White scored on a power play in the first period and Wallin extended the lead early in the third period as the Sharks put together two of their best back-to-back games to jump on top of the Red Wings for the second straight year.
While Detroit could blame a lack of rest for falling into a 3-0 hole to San Jose a year ago following a seven-game first-round series, the Red Wings were well-rested this year after sweeping Phoenix. But that made no difference against a determined Sharks team that has won 10 of 12 games against Detroit.
“The two teams are pretty darned even,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “‘I think you continue to see this. A bounce can one way. But if anyone can let their guard down, whether it’s us or them, the other team is going to make them pay.”
Jimmy Howard was again strong for the Red Wings, making 35 saves, but he got little help from his teammates. The Red Wings hope to change their fortunes when the series shifts to Detroit for Games 3 and 4 starting Wednesday night.
The Sharks controlled play in the second period and took control of the scoreboard with the rare goal from Wallin early in the third. He skated into the offensive zone and fired a shot that hit off Howard’s shoulder and helmet, popped in the air and fell into the net for a 2-0 lead.
Detroit’s frustration quickly materialized as Tomas Holmstrom took a roughing penalty on Jason Demers to negate a power play, and Niemi kept coming up with the big saves. His best moments came when he stopped Nicklas Lidstrom from the point, and then Danny Cleary and Henrik Zetterberg on rebounds midway through the third.
The Red Wings finally broke through with a power-play goal by Zetterberg with 6:02 remaining. They couldn’t get the equalizer, with the best chance coming when Lidstrom hit the post late in the period.
“We just turn around and go home,” Lidstrom said. “That’s the way you have to approach it. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. We have to rebound as a team. It’s been two close games and they’ve got the break each time.”
Both goalies came up big in a second period that featured plenty of hard hits, scoring chances and animosity that boiled over when San Jose’s Ben Eager and Detroit’s Todd Bertuzzi fell into the Red Wings bench during a scrum. The two nearly went at it again after serving coincidental roughing penalties, but Bertuzzi didn’t respond when Eager dropped his gloves. Eager was given a 10-minute misconduct penalty.
Niemi stopped a short-handed breakaway by Darren Helm early in the period and made two nice stops against Zetterberg on a Detroit power play shortly after that. Niemi also had a tough stop on Zetterberg in the final minute, playing more like the goalie who helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup last season than the one who got pulled twice in the first round against Los Angeles this year.
Howard was even better in the second and needed to be as the Sharks controlled the play for much of the period, winning two thirds of the faceoffs and outshooting Detroit 19-9.
“The bottom line is that we came here to compete and I thought we skated better and had more opportunities,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “Tonight we weren’t good enough. They won more battles than we did.”
The sellout crowd was loud from the start and got more frenzied when the Sharks broke out to a rare early lead this postseason when White beat Howard with a blast through a screen on a power play with Justin Abdelkader in the box for high-sticking.
NOTES: All four of Wallin’s postseason goals have been game-winners, but this was the first in regulation. … The Red Wings have lost six of their last seven series when falling behind 2-0, with the only win coming in the first round against Vancouver in 2002.
Copyright 2011 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.