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Antti Niemi gets 4-year extension after helping lead Sharks to top of division

SAN JOSE, Calif. - The San Jose Sharks rewarded goaltender Antti Niemi for helping lead the team's recent rise in the standings by giving him a US$15.2-million, four-year contract extension on Tuesday.

Niemi signed a $2-million, one-year deal with the Sharks this summer, just months after knocking them out of the playoffs and helping the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.

After a somewhat slow start to the season, Niemi is a major reason for the Sharks' turnaround in recent weeks that has moved them to the top of the Pacific Division standings with 78 points.

"We wanted Antti to remain a San Jose Shark and he wanted to be here," general manager Doug Wilson said. "Once he got through his expected integration period with our club, Antti's play has been outstanding and, just as important, he has consistently been a great teammate. And like many of his teammates over this past year, he worked with us on a contract that fits within our team structure and enables us to keep our group intact."

After letting longtime starter Evgeni Nabokov leave as a free agent after last season, the Sharks originally decided to go with Antero Niittymaki and Thomas Greiss in goal this season after signing Niittymaki to a $4-million, two-year deal.

But Niemi became available when the Blackhawks cut him because of salary cap concerns instead of paying him the $2.75-million salary he won in arbitration. San Jose signed him to the contract in early September and teamed him with Niittymaki.

Niemi won just one of his first five starts and had a 3.93 goals against average at the end of November. But he has picked up his play considerably since then and has been a major reason for San Jose's resurgence in recent weeks.

The 27-year-old Niemi has started the past 18 games with Niittymaki injured. He is 14-2-1 with a 1.91 goals against average and .934 save percentage in that span.

"He's been huge in this run of games," forward Patrick Marleau said. "He's been back there stopping all those key shots, making the hard saves look easy and making timely saves. He's been huge for us back there. He looks like he's having fun back there and playing well. We just have to keep playing well in front of him."

Niemi had played only 42 NHL games before leading Chicago to its first championship since 1961 last year. He went 16-6 with a 2.63 goals-against average in the playoffs, allowing only seven goals in the four-game sweep of the Sharks.

In 42 games this season, Niemi is 23-15-3 with a 2.44 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage and five shutouts.

"Nemo has been very good for us," coach Todd McLellan said. "He's there as a steadying influence now. Our guys really believe in him. They feel comfortable when he's in goal. Should we make mistakes, he's there to cover up for us. On the other side, I think he feels comfortable. He knows we're able to get him a little run support and that everyone is working had for him. Right now it's a powerful thing."

The Sharks also placed forward Scott Nichol and defenceman Kent Huskins on injured reserve with upper-body injuries and called up forward Brandon Mashinter from Worcester.

The Sharks also said star defenceman Dan Boyle and forward Ben Eager will miss Tuesday's game against Colorado with upper-body injuries.

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