Niemi continues to prove critics wrong

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- With the game still hanging in the balance and the Sharks smelling blood, Antti Niemi reached over with his glove along the goal line and stole a sure goal from Ryane Clowe.

The highlight-reel save with 4:12 left in the second period inspired his Blackhawks teammates, whose belief in their rookie goalie has grown as the playoffs have moved on.

"Those are the type of plays that really give you confidence," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said after Chicago's 2-1 victory over San Jose in Sunday's opening game of the Western Conference finals. "If that goes in, it's a whole different game."

Only one shot, a first-period tally by Jason Demers on the power play, would elude Niemi, and his 44-save gem was the big story in Game 1 of what shapes up to be a thrill-a-minute series.

Despite outplaying Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo in the previous series, Niemi still hadn't won over all of his critics through two playoff rounds; but Sunday's performance should win over the remaining doubters. Maybe.

"Well, if they keep saying that, it'll keep motivate him to prove them wrong," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "We know nothing that's being said or pointed out about him is really bothering him. He's playing great under pressure. He was definitely our most valuable player tonight."

There were other big saves, including a heart-stopping pad stop on Dany Heatley right in the slot early in the third period. On a team that usually doesn't need its goalie to be the first star, the Finnish netminder was just that. Where does this one rank in his young career?

"For sure, one of the best, for sure," was the short response from Niemi, whose economical use of the English language made him ill-suited for the postgame podium. That's OK, he'll let his play do the talking.

The Sharks were complimentary of Niemi's performance, but did so with one caveat -- they need to shoot higher on him like Demers did for the lone goal.

"He's got quick legs, he's an agile goalie," said Clowe. "He made a lot of good saves, but we have to focus on getting the puck up. Sometimes that's easier said than done."

Looking at the Sharks' performance from a glass-is-half-full point of view, launching 45 shots at the Hawks was an accomplishment worth noting. Chicago led the NHL in the regular season with the fewest shots allowed, protecting its net like a fortress. Not so on Sunday.

"We had our chances, we just have to capitalize," said Sharks center Joe Thornton. "We have to make our shots count next game."

The Sharks had 31 shots through two periods -- the most the Hawks have allowed all year long through 40 minutes, including the regular season.

"We don't want to give up that many shots, but they're an explosive team, a high-powered team," said Hawks blueliner Brent Seabrook. "They got quite a few shots on their power play, and we have to shore that up and try and stay out of the box."

The Sharks had five power plays to Chicago's zero, a strange imbalance in a game that was evenly played. That contributed heavily to San Jose's barrage of shots. But the Blackhawks killed off four out of five, including in the last minute of the game with San Jose pulling goalie Evgeni Nabokov to make it a 6-on-4 advantage. It was another huge kill for the league's second-ranked penalty-killing unit in the NHL playoffs; the Hawks are 87.9 percent through 13 playoffs games. Amazing.

In the meantime, Chicago's big line came through with the game winner. Toews won a key faceoff against Thornton, which led to Dustin Byfuglien's fifth goal of the playoffs 13:15 into the third period, a wicked wrist shot from the high slot that blew by Nabokov.

"He's got such a big shot, a heavy shot, and he lets it go very quickly," said Toews. "I keep telling him, 'Just hit the net and either me or Kaner [Patrick Kane] will go find the rebound.' He's shown he can power it right through a goaltender."

Taking a step back and looking at the aesthetic value of Game 1, we appear to be in store for quite a series. How often do you see both teams with 40 or more shots in regulation ... in a playoff game? The game had an electric pace, with two heavyweight contenders slugging it out.

"It was intense. Yeah, it was fast. I think that was one of the fastest we've seen," said Keith. "The Sharks have a lot of guys who can skate and move the puck."

The question many had entering this series was whether the Sharks could keep up with the Hawks. The answer from Game 1 was an unequivocal yes. Now, the question is, can the Sharks solve Niemi?

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.