SAN JOSE – If anyone knows goaltender Alex Stalock, it’s current Sharks defenseman Matt Irwin.
The two have played parts of four seasons together in Worcester, including the first half of this season when the NHL was in a lockout, and for the first time in their careers both were on the ice for San Jose during a 4-3 overtime loss to St. Louis on Saturday.
Stalock made the surprising appearance after head coach Todd McLellan gave Antti Niemi the hook when Vladirmir Sobotka’s second and third goals tied the game at 3-3 in the third period. It was Stalock’s first appearance since his one and only NHL game on Feb. 1, 2011, and first since a nerve injury nearly ended his career. Stalock suffered the injury in Worcester just three days after his NHL debut and took a full year to recover.
“He’s playing really well, so I’d like to think he’s at 100 percent. When it first happened, it was pretty scary,” Irwin said. “You don’t like to see that happen to anyone. Al worked really hard to get back to where he is, and I’m glad he got rewarded with getting back up here.”
“I played with him for two and a half years and I think everyone in this locker room knows that he’s capable of shutting the door for us. He made some big saves when we needed him to, and he played really well."
Stalock is 15-12-3 in Worcester this season, with a 2.48 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
In his NHL debut more than two years ago, Stalock played nearly half of the game in relief of Niemi and made nine saves as the Sharks fought back to beat the Phoenix Coyotes, 5-3. Saturday’s situation wasn’t much different from that game, besides the ending.
Stalock, who was recalled due to Thomas Greiss' sore neck, made five saves in the third period and one more in overtime before Patrik Berglund’s deflection won the game for the Blues.
“Pretty similar getting thrown in, in the middle of a game,” Stalock said. “That’s why you’ve always got to be ready, and why you’ve got two guys every night. It’s the other guy’s job to go in and play just as well, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Moments before the winning goal, Stalock thought the play should have been blown dead, as he saw the puck hit the protective netting behind the glass.
“I think the other guys were yelling, too. I wasn’t the only guy saying it was up in the net,” Stalock said. “Maybe it was something they missed, who knows.”
McLellan said: “I didn’t see it. I could hear Alex yelling, but I think that was much earlier in the play than right before.”
As for Niemi, David Perron flattened the goaltender with about five minutes to go in the second period, when Perron was called for goalie interference. It seemed coincidental that Niemi’s struggles started in the start of the third period, but Niemi said the hit had nothing to do with two subsequent goals by Sobotka.
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It’s a near certainty that Niemi, so long as he’s healthy, will return to the net against Colorado on Sunday.
“We want our group to continue to believe in our goaltending,” McLellan said. “Just because they had a bad period doesn’t mean that we turn our backs to them. They’ve played way too elite for us to do that.”