Programming note: Canucks-Sharks coverage starts Thursday night at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – For the time being, Antti Niemi has reclaimed his position as the Sharks’ number one goaltender. The 31-year-old will make his fifth consecutive start on Thursday night when the Sharks host Vancouver.
He’s earned it. Over the last four games, Niemi has helped his club gain seven of a possible eight points, stopping 126 of 133 shots (.947 save percentage).
After his struggles last season that carried over into the playoffs, Niemi wasn’t guaranteed anything when training camp began a month and a half ago. Sharks management and the coaching staff let it be known that it was an open competition for playing time up and down the roster – including in net.
Niemi, who exudes a decidedly chilled out personality, said on Wednesday that he thought nothing of the internal competition with his good friend Alex Stalock, with whom he split time in the preseason and first six games of the regular season.
“No, I didn’t think about it. If you’re going to play well, you’re going to get time to play, but it’s the same case every year,” Niemi said. “If you’re not stopping the puck, you’re not going to play too many minutes.”
Niemi had no trouble stopping pucks early last season, either. He started the year with 9-1-1 record, 1.53 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
Unfortunately he wasn’t able to maintain it the rest of the way, going 30-16-6 with a 2.58 GAA and .909 SP after Oct. 30, including several bad goals. How can he prevent that downward trend from happening again this season, in which he’s a pending unrestricted free agent?
“Good question. Just whatever happens, stay calm, stay patient. Don’t start to think about it too much,” he said.
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Niemi recently read an article about his countryman, Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen, who has had his share of ups-and-downs throughout his career, too.
“Kari Lehtonen said in the media that he realized he’s made this level, he’s good enough to play at this level, so if there’s a bad streak or whatever...
"We’re all at this level, we know we can play every night, so if you have one bad game, two bad games, a bad month – it shouldn’t be a big deal. You still are confident at the rink, working your ass off and trying your best either way.”
Stalock will get back in the net soon, as the Sharks begin seven-game road trip featuring a pair of back-to-backs on Saturday in Dallas. Perhaps Chicago on Sunday would be a good time to get Stalock back in there, after he had 33 saves in a 3-2 shootout win at United Center on Jan. 5, while Niemi has recently struggled against his former club.
Regardless, it seems that Niemi will continue to get the bulk of the work for the immediate future.
Todd McLellan said: “I think he’s been stronger and more confident mentally and physically than he was last year, for whatever reason. It’s showing in his game.”