SAN JOSE In hindsight, defenseman Dan Boyle had reason to think before the season even started that Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was about to elevate his game.
Boyle and Niemi were among the players who stayed in the Bay Area during the NHL lockout, renting ice to keep in shape. Niemi did leave for a month to play in his native Finland, and when he returned, he brought his longtime goalie coach for extra training.
"They were doing funky things out there on the ice, bringing in weights and doing all sorts of weird things," Boyle said. "From when he left to the time he came back, it was just harder to score on him."
That proved to be the case all season. The Sharks open their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series tonight against the Kings in Los Angeles, and Niemi deserves much of the credit for San Jose reaching the postseason.
While the rest of the team rode a roller coaster of highs and lows, Niemi was rock solid. He tied for the NHL lead with 24 wins, had a career-best 2.16 goals-against average and is a Vezina Trophy finalist for the first time.
Hampered by knee problems in 2011-12, Niemi knew he had to work extra hard in the offseason to regain agility and strength. That happened, but ask him what the biggest difference is in his play, and he'll mention something else.
"Being able to be confident, patient I think that's the biggest thing," he said.
The confidence, he added, comes from "being healthy, working hard and not worrying about anything that I can't do anything about. Having a short memory about everything, too. I've been trying to do it for a long time, and I got better at it."
All part of the evolution for the 29-year-old netminder who won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks at 26, then found himself in a new environment in San Jose when he signed as a free agent after the 2009-10 season.
Wayne Thomas, the Sharks' assistant general manager and goalie coach, credits "the maturity of his game" for Niemi's improved play.
"As goalies get older, they get the ability to read plays and are ahead of the game a little bit more," Thomas said. "So he knows the shooters, he knows the game more. There's not a lot of guess to his game."
Bruins 5, Maple Leafs 4 (OT) in Boston Patrice Bergeron tied it with 51 seconds left in regulation, then scored the game-winner 6:05 into overtime to give Boston a victory over Toronto in Game 7.
Toronto opened a 4-1 lead in the third period, but Boston cut the deficit to two midway through the third period and then scored twice in the final 82 seconds to force overtime.
Rangers 5, Capitals 0 in Washington Led by Henrik Lundqvist's 35 saves in a second consecutive shutout, New York beat Washington in Game 7 to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Sharks vs. Los Angeles
Best of seven; x-if necessary
Today: at L.A., 7 p.m., NBCSN
Thurs.: at L.A. 7 p.m., NBCSN
Sat.: at S.J., 6 p.m., NBCSN
May 21: at S.J., 7 p.m., NBCSN
x-May 23: at L.A., 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
x-May 26: at S.J., TBA
x-May 28: at L.A., TBA
The Associated Press contributed to this report.