Programming note: Canadiens-Sharks coverage starts Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – Antti Niemi is well aware that his backup and good friend Alex Stalock is playing superb hockey lately. Stalock, still in his first full NHL season, is arguably challenging Niemi for the number one job.
Niemi, for his part, turned in a strong performance in the Sharks’ 5-3 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday. Although he left a big rebound on Pittsburgh’s first goal and trailed 2-0 midway through regulation, he made some key saves in the middle frame while San Jose was looking a tad sluggish.
That includes Evgeni Malkin’s power move to the net, in which Niemi held his ground an kept his stick along the ice in denying the Penguins’ dangerous center.
“For Nemo to come back from the Olympics and play the top team in the East, and play well, he made some really good saves when it was 2-0 to keep it there,” Todd McLellan said. “If it gets to three, we’re in big trouble. But, he kept it at two, and allowed his teammates to work their way back into the game. I thought Nemo looked refreshed, and really solid in goal.”
Stalock started three of the first four games coming out of the Olympic break. Even though Niemi did not play at all in Sochi for Team Finland and said he felt refreshed after joining the team in Philadelphia afterwards, McLellan decided to give Stalock the start against the Flyers, and then back-to-back calls earlier this week for the first time in Stalock’s career. He went 2-0-1.
Stalock’s strong play, as well as a Niemi loss in Buffalo, suggested that the 26-year-old might get a real opportunity to take over as the starter just a few weeks before playoffs. That may still be the case.
It is, therefore, an important week for Niemi, who will “very likely” return to the net to face Montreal on Saturday, according to McLellan. The 30-year-old will look to build on Thursday’s win, because for the first time since he’s been in San Jose, another goaltender is legitimately pushing him.
“He’s playing well,” Niemi said of his counterpart. “I just have to do what I have to do, play as well as I can. [That’s] all I can do and all I need to do, either way.”
He’s hopeful that the rest over the Olympic break, and in the past week, will pay off.
“Huge to get a win," Niemi said. “I don’t know if [rest] helped, but it’s for sure great to be back home after awhile.”