Sharks’ Niemi gets the benefit of doubt

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Antti Niemi has a Stanley Cup and the benefit of the doubt. Roberto Luongo only seems to have doubters.

As the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks prepared for Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday, the questions about their respective goaltenders made it hard to tell which team won the series opener on Sunday.

Niemi was on the hook for the 3-2 loss after the Sharks blew a third-period lead. But most of the questions focused on his unflappable personality, a 6-0 record in playoff series, and the likelihood he would again bounce back.

“We have no concern, we’re very confident with Nemo, he’s a very mellow guy,” forward Dany Heatley said. “Without a good goalie you can’t go anywhere.”

And the Canucks think they have one in Luongo. But across the hall in the winning locker room, the focus after a win was on his mistakes.

Most glaring was a puck-handling gaffe that handed Joe Thornton the game’s first goal late in the first period. Despite the fact a less noticeable Niemi turnover led to the tying goal early in the second — and despite the fact Luongo’s play behind his net allowed the Canucks defense to move cleanly out of the zone most of the night — a lot of the talk about Luongo focused on the turnover.

Luongo blamed a broken stick after the game, and wasn’t available to talk after an optional practice Monday, but his teammates were happy to speak for him.

“He never gets a fair shake in this city and this league,” rookie backup goalie Cory Schneider said. “If we win it’s not because of him and if we lose it’s his fault it seems like. It’s kind of a lose-lose proposition for him.”

Niemi can’t seem to lose. He proved his mental mettle by winning the Stanley Cup in Chicago last year. But after being let go over salary concerns and signing in San Jose, it took the Finnish goalie a while to re-establish himself.

Like the team, he was struggling through mid-January before an injury to backup Antero Niittymaki led to 34 straight starts.

Niemi went 25-4-4 during that stretch with a .929 save percentage to earn his team’s trust. Part of it, Niemi said, was not letting them see when his confidence had slipped.

“They might see it sometimes, but more how I act like in the locker room,” said Niemi, admitting his confidence can go up and down a little every day. “But I hope they don’t see it on the ice.”

If they did during a shaky start in the first round against Los Angeles, no one was saying after Niemi bounced back from being pulled to win the clincher.

And after almost blowing a 3-0 series lead — one he helped build — against Detroit in the conference semifinals, Niemi made 38 saves in a Game 7 victory. He added 35 more in Game 1 in Vancouver, and was often San Jose’s best player.

“You’ve got to respect him,” Canucks forward Mason Raymond said. “He’s won six series in a row. Him winning a Cup proves he’s mentally strong.”

It may take that to end doubts about Luongo in the Canucks crease. But his teammates hope it doesn’t stop him from coming out of it to play the puck, something he’s done more, and gotten better at, this season. They also thought he deserves some Niemi-like credit for bouncing back after the goal.

“He’s been through a lot in this city and in these playoffs too,” Daniel Sedin said. “It’s going to take a lot more than that to rattle him.”

Luongo won Olympic gold for Canada last year, but is in the conference finals for the first time. Schneider said Luongo is using doubters as motivation.

“It’s like they are waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Schneider said. “He’s sick of hearing it, and he’s pretty determined to prove he’s a winner and he’s the great goalie he is.”

It’s something Niemi does not have to worry about.

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