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SAN JOSE – It’s a significant season for Antti Niemi, coming off of a down year and entering the final year of his contract, even if he doesn’t want to think about it in those terms.
“You ask the question any day, you’re going to say it’s an important year,” Niemi said. “I don’t think you can ever feel like the year you’re having right now is not the most important.”
“It’s just a special year, also because of what happened last year, we lost in the first round. I want to make more saves.”
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Niemi will likely start and finish the Sharks’ preseason home opener at SAP Center on Friday night against the Phoenix…er, make that Arizona Coyotes. He didn’t play in either of the split squad games against Vancouver, and head coach Todd McLellan likes his goalies to go the distance in the preseason.
It will be the first chance for the 31-year-old to put his disappointing 2013-14 season and subsequent playoff run behind him.
McLellan said Niemi is physically ahead of where he was this time last year, as Niemi and Alex Stalock will compete for time in net.
“Getting legs stronger, that was the main focus,” said Niemi, who was 9-1-1 in his first 11 games with a 1.53 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, and 30-16-6 with a 2.58 GAA and .909 SP in his final 53 starts.
Regardless of who gets the call for opening night in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, each goaltender will see action, as the Sharks have a travel-heavy schedule through the first two months of their regular season with 16 of the first 21 games on the road. That’s different than last year, when Niemi started and finished the first 11 games – and started 16 of the first 17 – while the rookie Stalock was the last NHL backup to get into a game.
“They’re both going to need to play, and we are paying attention,” McLellan said. “We want to make sure they’re at the top of their games … Their performance, like anybody else’s, has to get better nightly.”
Niemi, of course, likes to play as much as possible, and both he and McLellan shot down any suggestion that he played too much at the start of last season. The goaltender and head coach also indicated they’re not quite sure why Niemi couldn’t maintain the level of play he found early last season and in the shortened 2013 campaign when he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
“Maybe there were things in his game that weren’t identified quick enough, or maybe he did try and work on them and they didn’t come to fruition,” McLellan said. “His year last year, in comparison to the year prior, was sub-par. We had some players that were like that as well … Do we hope that we get that Vezina candidate back? Absolutely."
Niemi isn’t concerned about a likely platoon situation with Stalock.
“I don’t think it makes a difference. It’s how you prepare yourself, how you focus,” he said.
McLellan said: "It’s a fresh start for him, and a fresh start for all of us. We’ll give him every opportunity to be successful."