The San Jose Sharks began the 2013-2014 season with an impressive win streak, taking 6 straight right out of the gate before losing to the Dallas Stars. They continued to do well throughout October and November with their starting goalie, Antti Niemi between the pipes. However, by mid to late December and right before the Olympic break, it was clear that Niemi was no longer playing like he was when he was nominated for the 2013 Vezina trophy. The Sharks’ starting goaltender’s struggles continued after he returned from the Olympics in Sochi, where he was one of three goalies selected to represent Finland, alongside Kari Lehtonen and Tuukka Rask, but did not have a minute of ice time.
Despite inconsistent play from Niemi, head coach, Todd McLellan, started him over back-up goalie, Alex Stalock when last years play-offs rolled around. Stalock did get a start in goal in the postseason, but McLellan stuck with Niemi for the decisive game seven. Of course, the Sharks went on to lose that game to the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings.
At the end of a long offseason for the Sharks organization, McLellan announced that the position of starting goaltender would be up for grabs. Niemi got the call to start the season’s first game in Los Angeles, but for the several games following the season opener, Niemi alternated starts with Stalock. San Jose continued to rotate their netminders until a stretch of a few tough games. Since then, it seems as if Niemi has gained an edge on Stalock for the starting position.
So far, Niemi has been a strong in net for San Jose; out of his nine starts, he has won six with a save percentage of .923% and 2.49 GAA. The Finnish netminder is expected to make his fifth straight start for the Sharks on Thursday, October 6th against the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks are a hot team right now, and should give the three dominant California teams a run for their money throughout the season.
The number that sticks out the most, however, is that this will be Niemi’s fifth consecutive start. Sure, many goaltenders in the league could certainly start five games straight, especially after a few extra days of rest like the Sharks have had, but there is no reason to overwork Niemi. San Jose should make the most out of having a backup goalie who performs consistently. Stalock’s numbers have also been solid in the four starts he has made this season; he boasts a .924 save percentage with 2.22 GAA.
Though at this point, it may look like Niemi has secured the starting job for now, The San Jose Mercury reported on Wednesday that McLellan actually has yet to make a final decision. He did say, however, that the competition was still ongoing. If that is the case, then McLellan should not hesitate to give Stalock a start or two even while Niemi is doing well. Not only do the Sharks have chance to put a well-rested Niemi in goal more often, it encourages a friendly competition between him and Stalock that McLellan noticed improved both goaltenders’ play last season when it became apparent that Niemi’s starting job was in jeopardy.
Perhaps it isn’t as big of a deal that Niemi will start against the Canucks Thursday because the Sharks have gotten extra rest, but down the stretch, he should be getting the breaks he needs in order to perform his best between the pipes. Niemi is, without a doubt, a workhorse, but even he needs to watch a game from the sidelines every once in awhile.
San Jose has a lot to prove down the stretch with the disappointing way last season ended and both goalies will certainly be playing a big role in getting the team to the postseason. With a season full of tough competition ahead, the Sharks need both goaltenders in order to beat out the best of the best. Stalock needs to get more playing time, regardless of how Niemi is playing, in order for Niemi to stay sharp. The bottom line, San Jose has two reliable goaltenders, and if it so happens that Stalock gets named back-up, then the Sharks will have one of the best back-up netminders in the league and they need to use him if they want to be the best team they can be.
Click here for more statistics on Antti Niemi
and here for more on Alex Stalock
Image courtesy of NHL.com