Programming note: Sharks-Predators coverage begins Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
The Sharks’ coaching staff has a decision to make headed into the final game of its road trip on Tuesday night.
Should Alex Stalock, who played well against the Chicago Blackhawks in a 3-2 shootout win on Sunday, get the start again in Nashville? Or, should a struggling Antti Niemi return to the net against the Predators?
[RELATED: Stalock, defense key Sharks' win in Chicago]
The opinion here is that Stalock has earned the opportunity to make his first back-to-back starts of the season.
Stalock has appeared in 10 games this season, including three of the last four, two in relief of an ineffective Niemi. He made 33 saves against the Blackhawks, remained perfect in the shootout, and is 5-1 as a starter in his first full NHL season.
Overall, the Minnesota native is 5-2-0, has an impressive 2.03 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, and one of his two losses came in Colorado on Saturday when he allowed only the game-winning goal in the third period of a 4-3 loss.
Niemi, on the other hand, hasn’t been on top of his game and it’s been hurting the team. He’s 13-7-5 in 26 games since Oct. 30, with a 2.86 GAA and .904 SP over that span. If those were his numbers for the season, Niemi would be 23rd in the league in goals-against average and 24th in save percentage among goalies that have played at least 20 games.
Even his 2.45 GAA and .911 SP for the season are average marks, and Niemi is nowhere near the top 10 in the NHL with either of those numbers, despite his 22 wins being tied for second in the league.
The Erik Johnson goal Niemi allowed in Colorado on Saturday was possibly his worst mistake of the season. Yes, the puck took an awkward bounce between the circles after Johnson threw it on net from the blue line, but a confident goalie who is on top of his game finds a way to keep that puck from hopping past him.
Interestingly, in his postgame press conference Sunday, as McLellan praised Stalock’s play in the win over the Blackhawks, he concluded by saying that by starting the 26-year-old against the Blackhawks, “I think that helped our defensive focus a little bit tonight.”
Why is that? Why did it take a change in goalie for the Sharks to play better in their own zone? And, if that’s the case, why go back to Niemi against the Predators?
It’s hard to imagine that Stalock will unseat Niemi for the number one position. After all, Niemi has won a Stanley Cup, is signed through next season at a very reasonable $3.8 million cap hit, and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie last season. If the Sharks are going to challenge for a Stanley Cup, Niemi will be the guy that’s between the pipes.
For the moment, though, giving him time to reflect on his game and take a breather looks necessary. Niemi is probably going to be on the Olympic team for his home Finland, so a February break isn’t likely to be in his future. Stalock is playing well, the head coach suggested the team is playing better defensively in front of him, and in a season in which the standings are so tight and every point is so valuable, it makes sense to ride the hot hand.