Antti Niemi blanks Blackhawks with 31-save effort

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Antti Niemi stops Jonathan Toews’ second-chance shot in the second period Saturday night in San Jose. (AP Photo)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Jonathan Toews raced in on Antti Niemi on a shorthanded breakaway in the second period Saturday night, and his quick wrist shot somehow squeaked through Niemi’s gear. But as he fell backward, Niemi swept the puck off the goal line, then stopped another Toews chance, then barely got another with his shoulder as he lay prone in the crease. Then Niemi got a little help, as an official lost sight of the puck and blew the play dead while Toews still had a chance for a fourth try.

“I should have scored on the first try,” Toews shrugged.

It was that kind of night for the Hawks, who struggled to create any significant offense all night, and couldn’t solve Niemi even when they did in a 2-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks on the second night of a difficult back-to-back. Both teams were coming off wins over the league-leading Anaheim Ducks.

It was the Hawks’ second tough-to-swallow regulation loss in three games since the All-Star break, wrapped around a near-perfect effort in Anaheim. The Hawks felt they could have won all three, which will gnaw at them as they spend Super Bowl Sunday in Las Vegas for their annual bonding trip before heading to Minnesota on Monday to continue their lengthy ice-show trip.

“It’s not the result we wanted going into it,” Toews said. “We’ve been playing some good hockey this road trip, and it’s two games we got no points in. We played pretty well and did a lot of good things. We’ll enjoy the time together as a team the next couple of days and enjoy the football game tomorrow and get back to work on Tuesday. We won’t forget about this one. We have to get back into the win column for now. We haven’t been doing that often enough lately.”

Niemi, who backstopped the Hawks to the 2010 Stanley Cup, finished with 31 saves.

“Niemi played a great game,” said the other Antti on the ice, Hawks goalie Antti Raanta (18 saves). “We got lots of good scoring chances but he said no every time. He was one of the reasons why we lost the game, and when you play a shutout, you are the king of the rink. … His glove was everywhere. Sometimes it’s great to watch Finnish goalies play that good, but now we lost a game because of it, so it wasn’t so nice a thing. All the praise to him. He was the reason why we lost.”

Raanta had a shaky start to the game, failing to corral a Matt Irwin rebound five minutes into the game, leading to a stuff-in by Melker Karlsson for a 1-0 Sharks lead. He settled down after that, steering aside a Barclay Goodrow breakaway early in the third period and then stopping a Matt Nieto one-timer from the low slot to keep it a one-goal game. But Niemi stood tall and kept the Hawks at bay until Joe Thornton scored an empty-netter with 1:10 left, handing them their fourth shutout of the season.

Raanta fell to 6-9-2 on the road in his career, with a a goals-against average well north of 3 and a save percentage well south of .900. At home, he’s a remarkable 14-0-2, with a GAA of 1.50 and a save percentage of .945.

“Sorry about that, we couldn’t get the win,” Raanta said. “I think everybody was hoping that for me, and of course I was hoping for myself, so I wouldn’t have to talk about road games anymore with you guys. It’s how it is. This is life. Next time I’m going to be even more ready and be ready to get the two points and get the good win.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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