SAN JOSE -- Alex Stalock and Antti Niemi were two of the last players in the San Jose Sharks dressing room after practice Tuesday, the day before one of the biggest games in the history of the franchise.
Stalock and Niemi were discussing the skating ability of some goalies, and at one point Stalock told Niemi a story about participating in a goalie race a few years back in Michigan with other top American players at the position.
It was a joke, a con that Stalock kept up for the entire conversation before letting Niemi in on it near the end. For people who don't get to witness interactions like that, the idea of two goaltenders who are competing for the same spot and each of whom told the media they did not know who would start Game 7 of this Western Conference First Round series against the Los Angeles Kings remaining friendly might seem far-fetched.
"Obviously it is good to have competition, but we get along great and we're good friends," Stalock said. "I think [not talking] would only hurt the play. I think it is great that we get along and help each other and push each other."
For Sharks coach Todd McLellan, it could be one of the most important decisions of his tenure. San Jose is trying to avoid becoming the fourth team in NHL history to lose a series after taking a 3-0 lead, and he has to choose between the goalie he has pulled from his past two starts and someone who has one career start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
McLellan spoke to both goaltenders on the ice at practice Tuesday.
"Told them both to be ready to go," McLellan said to the media after the workout leading into Game 7 on Wednesday at SAP Center (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS2, PRIME, CSN-CA).
Which way will McLellan turn? Here's the argument for each goaltender:
THE SHARKS SHOULD START ANTTI NIEMI
Trust the numbers. Trust the track record.
Niemi has not played well in his past two games, but he has proven he can stop pucks at the NHL level better and for longer than Stalock. Game 7 against the Kings would be Niemi's 62nd appearance in the playoffs. He helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010, and as recently as last season was fantastic for the Sharks in the postseason (.930 save percentage in 11 games).
He has a .916 save percentage in 277 NHL regular-season games. Stalock has appeared in 27 regular-season games and three in the NHL playoffs.
In the four years prior to this one, Stalock never compiled a save percentage of better than .914 in the American Hockey League. Stalock has played well in relief in this series, but he yielded four goals on 30 shots in Game 6.
Stalock's numbers are better this season but in a much smaller sample size. It's been proven that the performance of young goaltenders can fluctuate wildly, and it takes a much larger sample than about 650 shots to determine how capable a goalie is at this level.
Niemi was brought to San Jose to help the Sharks win a Stanley Cup. He has won important playoff games before. The body of work is clearly in his favor.
THE SHARKS SHOULD START ALEX STALOCK
Stalock has performed better this season and in this series than Niemi, so stick with the proverbial "hot hand."
For about 110 minutes in this series, Stalock had allowed one goal. The second was controversial, and the Sharks remain convinced it should not have counted. What transpired after could hardly be blamed on Stalock, so bank on him playing more like he did in those first 50 minutes of Game 6 and not like he did in the final 10.
Other members of the Sharks have been confident in Stalock's ability all season and have repeatedly said they like him behind them just as much as Niemi. Feel confident the rest of the team will want to atone for the final 10 minutes of Game 6 and do a better job of protecting Stalock.
Niemi is under contract through next season. Win this game and there will be chances for him to earn the net back, just like Jonas Hiller may have done with his relief performance in Game 6 for the Anaheim Ducks against the Dallas Stars.
More important, the outcome of this game could have a seismic effect on the Sharks. Niemi was pulled from each of the past two games he started. The Kings are playing much better, and the Sharks cannot afford another dud.
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