Dan's View From Center Ice - 8/24/2012

Friday, 08.24.2012 / 6:58 AM PT
By Dan Rusanowsky - Sharks Broadcaster / The Daily Chomp
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While much of the hockey world is focusing on such topics as Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, Donald Fehr, Steve Fehr, and the CBA, many fans are clamoring for anything else of note that will pique their interest in these summer months. So, while scanning the news, I noted a pleasant story that I thought I’d share with you:

Last season, Antero Niittymaki endured a year filled with health problems that led to a condition that many thought spelled the end of his hockey career. Faced with a hip joint replacement after several seasons of labrum tears and other hip problems, the goaltender was in a situation that no other goaltender had overcome.

Well, after a season spent on the shelf for much of the time, followed by a 13 game stint in the American Hockey League with Worcester and Syracuse, “Niitty” spent many hours in a rigorous training regimen, and has signed a one-year contract to play for TPS Turku of the Finnish Elite League.

How will Niittymaki be remembered here in San Jose? Aside from his steady demeanor, we’ll also remember a few games which were important parts of the team’s run to the Western Conference Final vs. Vancouver in 2011:
  • Nov. 6, 2010 vs. Tampa Bay: Niittymaki made 18 saves in the third period, and 33 for the night, in what turned out to be a 5-2 Sharks win against the Lightning. San Jose had been shut out in their previous two games by Minnesota and St. Louis, and Niitty’s goaltending got him first star honors that night.
  • Dec. 8, 2010 at Philadelphia: Returning to the city where he made his NHL debut, Niittymaki held on with a 5-4 shootout win on a night that included Claude Giroux’s 100th NHL point, Jeff Carter’s 300th NHL point, and a 4-1 Flyers lead that could have been insurmountable. In the shootout, Niitty stopped both Giroux and Danny Briere to notch the 5-4 comeback win.
But Niittymaki’s crowning moment in his short Sharks tenure came on April 19, 2011, in Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinal round against the Los Angeles Kings.

Yes, that’s right: Niittymaki was the winning goaltender in one of the most exciting games in San Jose Sharks history, the night that they became the 4th team in NHL history to overcome a 4-goal deficit to win a Stanley Cup playoff game. Niitty had only played in two of his team’s last 35 games, and only in one from start to finish. He had been struggling with the injury problems that would get more acute this past season.

But when Brad Richardson gave L.A. a 4-0 lead just 44 seconds into the second period, coach Todd McLellan pulled out Antti Niemi and put Niitty in. In the amazing comeback, capped by an overtime goal by Devin Setoguchi, Niitty stopped 11 shots, and believe it or not, picked up his first and only career playoff victory in the process.

Since the Kings had engineered one of those playoff comebacks and called it the “Miracle on Manchester,” the street where the Forum was located, one could only call this game the “Fiasco on Figueroa,” the location of Staples Center, from a Kings point of view. But from the Sharks side of the ice, it was a pretty sweet, historic win that may not have been artful, but was certainly memorable.

From that point on, the Sharks defeated the Kings, then Detroit, and faced Vancouver in the Western Conference Final, all with Niemi back in goal. But if it hadn’t been for Niittymaki’s steadiness in relief on that one April night, who knows what might have happened?

On Friday, Niittymaki is scheduled to be in goal when TPS plays SC Bern, a Swiss League team, and when he does, it will be a triumphant return to the team where he began his career in the late 1990’s.

Given the surgeries he’s had on his hip, and the groundbreaking work he’s doing in playing with the joint replacement surgeries, we’ll have to keep tabs on his progress and see if it gets into the medical journals. But it’s also good news for Niittymaki, who deserves to have his career continue at a high level.

One interesting note: the ownership group at TPS Turku is reported to include the Koivu brothers, Mikko and Saku, and Miikka Kiprusoff. Kipper, an owner? I’d love to sit in on those board of directors’ meetings!
That aside, if Antero Niittymaki successfully returns to professional hockey, there will be a lot of people in San Jose who will be happy for him.

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