PHOENIX – Reunited teammates Antti Niemi and Adam Burish recently had dinner together, and, unsurprisingly, talk of their 2010 Stanley Cup championship run with the Chicago Blackhawks entered the conversation.
Niemi took over the starting role in mid-March of that year and three months later he was raising the most famous trophy in sports, helping end Chicago’s 47-year drought and beating the Sharks in the Western Conference finals along the way. If that seems like a whirlwind of a way to establish yourself as a starting NHL goaltender, Niemi felt that way, too, according to Burish.
Burish said: “We were talking, and he said, ‘That year we won the Cup, I don’t think it ever really sunk in for a long time that I was the starting goalie for a Stanley Cup championship team. I never pictured myself being there.’”
Niemi parlayed that success into a contract with the Sharks after Chicago walked away from an arbitration award, and a subsequent four-year, $15.2 million extension with San Jose that kicked in before the 2011-12 season. Not only is he still a starting goaltender, but also his name is in the hat as a possible Vezina Trophy candidates based on his numbers this season. Niemi, who leads the league with 24 wins, was chosen as the team’s Player of the Year for 2013 by the local media on Tuesday, too.
Burish has a unique perspective on the goaltender, playing with Niemi when he broke into the league, and again now. He was asked on Wednesday what the differences are between the Niemi of 2010, and the one that’s been the Sharks’ most consistent player in this shortened season.
“The way he plays, not a lot. His demeanor, not a lot. … But, I think maybe the way he carries himself, he’s more confident,” Burish said. “The year we won the Cup and he was in net, I think it was his second year over here, so he still wasn’t real sure of what was going on.
“He’s real unassuming and even-keeled, but the one thing that’s changed is he kind of knows now that he’s the man. His work ethic is the same. I’ve played with a lot of different goalies, but he probably wants more shots, wants to be out there longer and practice more than any goalie I’ve ever played with. That’s all stayed the same.”
Niemi recently said that if he were a Vezina finalist, or even won the coveted trophy, that it’s something he could take confidence in after the season ends. He’s not concerned with it while the Sharks are still battling for playoff position, though. “You can’t be selfish when you’re trying to stop the puck,” he said.
He may be a long shot, as 17 of the past 18 Vezina winners have come from Eastern Conference teams. It’s a bit more difficult for a player that routinely plays the latest game on the schedule on any given night to get the attention or respect as a top goalie from a high profile Eastern Conference team.
Burish doesn’t think that bothers the 29-year-old Finn.
“In San Jose, we’re in a smaller market, you’re not in Montreal or Chicago or New York, where every time he has one of these games where he stands on his head and he’s unbelievable, it’s all over the media and it’s everywhere and everybody knows about it.
“I’m sure he likes it that way. That fits his personality. He doesn’t want to be in the spotlight or be recognized. He doesn’t need to be patted on the back every day. He just needs to know that we trust him, and we do.”