SAN JOSE – Maybe it’s his decidedly laid back nature that makes him such an effective goaltender.
Antti Niemi didn’t spend any nights losing sleep or crying into his pillow when he was named the second runner up to the Vezina Trophy in 2013. Sure, it would have been a nice honor for the 30-year-old to be chosen as the NHL’s best goalie, but just being among the nominees was enough for him.
“I was just happy to be a finalist there,” Niemi said on Thursday. “It was a huge deal, I think. It just gave me more confidence, and I feel like we did the right things.”
It was a breakthrough year for Niemi in the shortened 2013 campaign, even though the Finland native previously won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Although he was firmly entrenched as the Sharks’ starting goaltender from the start of the season, there were some questions surrounding his consistency after an uneven performance the prior season.
It was later revealed that Niemi, who missed the start of 2011-12 after the removal of a cyst on his leg, also battled a knee injury throughout the year. During the lockout, Niemi worked with Jarmo Liimatainen, his childhood goalie coach, to build leg strength. It showed during his stellar 2013, in which he was named as the Sharks’ team MVP by the local media as well as a Vezina finalist with Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky (the eventual winner) and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.
This summer, Niemi once again worked with Liimatainen, whom he has known for 15 years.
“I went through the same type of stuff which made me feel good last year. I feel good on the ice and off the ice right now,” Niemi said.
Niemi, who doesn’t particularly enjoy surrendering his net, led all NHL goaltenders with 2,581 minutes last year, playing in 43 of 48 games. That experience of competing so much in a condensed season taught Niemi a valuable lesson in how to manage his body as he hopes to continue to garner the bulk of the workload.
“I think we learned stuff about playing every other day, balancing the rest and the practice and playing a lot,” he said.
What are some of those things?
“How much to work; days in between, maybe not going on the ice, and maybe do a little workout upstairs (in the gym). You don’t have to skate every day. I think I just got the confidence going and felt good about having days off once in awhile, and just focus on the games.”
While many NHL teams have uncertain situations in net, the Sharks are not one of them. It’s a luxury for the coaching staff, and one fewer decision to make as the start of the regular season on Oct. 3 is two weeks away.
“Nemo is one of the best in the league, and we know that and feel comfortable,” Todd McLellan said. “More importantly, it’s about how the players in the locker room feel about him. They want to play for him, they like his competitiveness, they go to the wall for him. I think that speaks volumes of his character and his ability.”
Niemi also has a very good chance to represent his country in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, as he’s among a group of elite goaltenders from that country including Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Kari Lehtonen.
But, first things first.
“Of course it would be a great honor and I would love to be there, but I feel that I have to focus on playing well here," Niemi said. "Then, if I can play at the best possible level, I might make it there. But, I have to focus on playing well here.”