SAN JOSE, Calif. – Initially, it wasn’t easy crossing sides in a growing rivalry. It also has been an adjustment going from a traditional hockey market in Chicago to California’s Bay Area, where the scrutiny and attention aren’t as intense.
But Antti Niemi hasn’t changed much. He’s remembered in Chicago as a quiet but extremely confident goalie who delivered for the Blackhawks during their Stanley Cup season. The San Jose Sharks see him the same way.
‘‘He’s still a pretty quiet guy [who] goes about his business,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said.
But the Sharks are starting to describe Niemi in a way the Hawks never did in his magical one-year run. They call him a workhorse.
‘‘He’s been great,” Sharks center Logan Couture said. ‘‘Every night, he’s a workhorse. He wants to play every single game. He competes so hard, whether it’s in practice or a game. He’s definitely a leader on the ice. His work ethic is the best I’ve seen out of any goaltender. We’re glad to have him.”
Regardless of the outcome of their matchup Friday at HP Pavilion, the Sharks have their No. 1 goalie for the stretch run and playoffs. The Hawks are still waiting for Corey Crawford or Ray Emery to take over.
‘‘[Niemi’s] been our guy for the last two years,” defenseman Dan Boyle said. “He gets most of the games. He’s played very well for us.”
While the Hawks benefitted from Niemi’s talents, they didn’t show nearly enough faith in his abilities to re-sign him. Instead, back-and-forth negotiations famously ended with the Hawks walking away from him at arbitration in August 2010 and receiving nothing in return.
The Sharks stepped in, signing him through 2014-15.
“We believe in him,” McLellan said. “Over the two years now, he’s felt really comfortable and has fit in for a long time. He’s a little bit sneaky sometimes, too. He’s got a big smile on his face and can joke around with the guys. But he’s pretty much all business.
“We talked about it [recently]. [He’s] a workhorse. The more he plays, the better he is, and we’ll need that down the stretch.”
The Hawks, meanwhile, have their fourth goalie conundrum in as many seasons. Crawford has been inconsistent since signing a three-year deal to be their No. 1.
Despite Niemi’s playoff success, there were some in the Hawks organization who doubted he could be a full-time No. 1 goalie. So he became expendable during the salary-cap purge. Crawford has a $2.67 million cap hit compared with Niemi’s $3.8 million.
‘‘It seemed like it was one of those summers where everyone was going and it was kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah, he’ll be gone, too,’â€‰” forward Patrick Kane said. ‘‘At the time, you probably found a goalie, and you were disappointed he left. He’s had some success here [in San Jose], too.
‘‘But I think we’re happy with the two guys we have here. Crawford was unbelievable last year. [Last year] was probably one of the best goaltender performances I’ve seen. Throughout half of the season, he was awesome every night.”
Niemi, meanwhile, is happy in San Jose. He was highly motivated in his year with the Hawks to prove he’s an NHL-caliber goalie. Now he’s motivated to show he’s elite.
‘‘I’m getting more patient and more confident,” said Niemi, who entered Friday with a 2.33 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. ‘‘Those are the main things. And we’ve got a pretty good team that can go far.”
And the team believes in him.
‘‘He’s got a lot of memories with the organization, winning a Stanley Cup there,” Couture said. ‘‘I’m sure he’d love to beat this team every single time we play them.”