Niemi may be Vezina frontrunner
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PHOENIX – There is a logjam of goaltenders putting up impressive numbers in this shortened NHL season, and narrowing down that group to just three nominees for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender will be difficult.

One name that should garner plenty of attention, though, is the Sharks’ Antti Niemi. In fact, Niemi may be the frontrunner at this point, as the regular season draws to a conclusion.

Niemi is in the top eight in every important statistical category following his 35-save shutout performance over Phoenix on Monday night. He’s tied for the league lead in wins with 21. His .925 save percentage is sixth in the league, and his 2.13 goals-against average is eighth. His four shutouts are tied for fourth, just one off the league lead.

[RELATED: Antti Niemi stats]

His teammates are aware.

“In our opinion, he’s the best goalie in the league,” Logan Couture said. “He’s fun to play for, and he’s fun to practice with because he’s the hardest working goalie that I’ve ever played with. We have a lot of confidence in him. Great guy, great team guy, and we all want to play hard in front of him.”

Joe Thornton said: “We feel like we get just a couple a night, Nemo is going to be shutting the door.”

There are other candidates, of course, but no one stands out as a heavy favorite. Chicago’s Ray Emery and Corey Crawford have been outstanding, but have essentially split time in net. Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus has shown to be a star in the making, but his team may not make the playoffs. Same with the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. Boston’s Tuukka Rask, Vancouver’s Cory Schneider and the Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov may also be in the mix.

Niemi’s body of work stacks up favorably with any of them.

“Nemo deserves to be part of that [Vezina] conversation league-wide,” Todd McLellan said. “When the people begin to talk about potential candidates for those awards, his numbers speak for themselves. He’s been playing a lot, he’ll continue to play a lot, and he’s been able to maintain a pretty consistent game throughout the year, rather than be up and down and all over.”

McLellan is right, and Niemi’s ability to play consistently with little time to hang his skates up might separate him from his goaltending brethren. He’s played more minutes (2279) than any goaltender in the league other than Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, and made his 20th straight start against the Coyotes. He’s started 29 of the last 30 Sharks games overall.

He may get the call in the final six games, too. The Sharks have a pair of two-day breaks between now and the regular season finale in Los Angeles on April 27.

Is he getting tired?

“Maybe some nights, but it’s just about how you maintain yourself and how you stay fresh; balancing everything,” Niemi said. “Rest a lot, and don’t go crazy working out on the ice.”

Not surprisingly, he said he’s not thinking about any post-season awards just yet. He doesn’t deny that it would be an honor to at least be a finalist for the award, though.

“I just want to be as good as possible. Now, the wins are the main thing. It doesn’t really matter at this point. We want to get a good setup for the playoffs, and that’s all that really matters.

“It would be nice, and something to take confidence and pride [in] after, but it doesn’t really matter right now. It’s maybe something that’s cool afterwards.

“If the goalie is playing well, it helps the team. You can’t be selfish trying to stop the puck.”