Antti Niemi to start against Blackhawks tonight – Awkward?

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.

Zetterberg on pace to play 1,000th game in Joe Louis Arena farewell

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Barring injury, Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg will get the opportunity to make his 1,000th NHL game even more special.

Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill confirmed today that Zetterberg will play tonight and tomorrow in Carolina, putting the 36-year-old on pace to play his 1,000th game on Apr. 9, the date of the final Wings game at Joe Louis Arena.

The Wings, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, have eight games left in their regular season. They host New Jersey on Apr. 9.

Tonight’s game was originally scheduled for Dec. 19, but had to be postponed due to poor ice conditions at PNC Arena.

Isles sign Northeastern captain Stevens

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John Stevens, who just wrapped a four-year career at Northeastern University, has signed a two-year, entry-level deal with the Islanders, the club announced on Monday.

Stevens, 22, went undrafted but emerged as a valuable player for the Huskies, culminating with a senior season in which he served as captain and averaged better than a point per game (28 in 25 contests).

Stevens is the son of longtime L.A. Kings associate coach John Stevens, who formerly served as the bench boss in Philly.

A third member 0f the Stevens clan, Nolan, also played this season at Northeastern — his junior campaign — and was taken by St. Louis in the fifth round of last year’s draft.

McElhinney to start for Leafs tomorrow

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Curtis McElhinney will start in goal for the Maple Leafs when they host Florida tomorrow.

Which means Toronto’s regular starter, Frederik Andersen, will not.

Andersen, hurt Saturday in Buffalo, only lasted 20 minutes of practice this morning. The Toronto Star, citing a Leafs source, is reporting that Andersen “took a blow to his jaw from a player in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Sabres.”

McElhinney is 4-5-0 with a .919 save percentage in 10 appearances for the Leafs this season. He told reporters that tomorrow will be the biggest start of his NHL career.

It remains to be seen who will back up McElhinney against the Panthers. The Leafs have recalled goalie Garret Sparks from the AHL on an emergency basis. All three netminders were on the ice today.

Update:

Expect Sparks to be the back-up tomorrow.

Toronto has a three-point playoff cushion, with eight games remaining.

The Leafs also recalled forward Kasperi Kapanen, the 22nd overall draft pick in 2014. Kapanen, 20, has 18 goals and 25 assists in 43 games for the Marlies this season. He’s expected to replace Ben Smith on the fourth line, alongside Brian Boyle and Matt Martin.

Habs sign d-man Mete, who ‘does everything’ for junior team

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Victor Mete, Montreal’s fourth-round pick at last year’s draft, has signed his three-year, entry-level deal, the club announced on Monday.

Mete, 18, is in his third year with OHL powerhouse London, and finished this season with 15 goals and 44 points in 50 games. He’s developed a reputation as a terrific skater, and often plays alongside fellow Knights d-man Olli Juolevi, who the Canucks took fifth overall at last year’s draft.

London assistant coach Dylan Hunter had high praise for Mete this season.

“When it comes to little nuances of his game, stick on puck, knowing when to make a play and when there isn’t a play to just get it out, he’s one of the best there is right now,” Hunter said, per the London Free Press.

“He does everything for us.”

Mete has one year of junior eligibility remaining, so it’s likely he’ll be back in London next season. At 5-foot-10 and just 180 pounds, he’s undersized and could use another year of development before turning pro.