|San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi waits during a timeout in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. The Sharks won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) |
The Sharks rise to the top of the Pacific Division has been a team affair. A commitment to defense and timely goal scoring are among the many factors that have propelled San Jose to third place in the Western Conference. Contributions are coming from every facet of the game.
However, there’s no questioning the correlation between the current run and goaltender Antti Niemi
’s individual hot streak.
“He’s comfortable, he’s confident, he knows he’s playing and his teammates believe in him,” Head Coach Todd McLellan said. “Those are four pretty powerful factors that come into play. There’s nothing else we can do for him. The rest is up to him. He’s grabbed that opportunity and really run with it.”
Last spring, Sharks fans sat and watched Niemi’s talents prevent San Jose from making their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance. If Niemi maintains his current pace, he could be the cause of such an appearance. In 17 consecutive starts, Niemi is 13-2-1 (with one no decision) and has allowed just 31 goals. In nine of those contests, his stinginess has prevented the opposition from notching a power play goal and he was named the National Hockey League’s No. 1 star for last week’s games. He’s followed that up with two more wins this week.
Those who followed the Blackhawks last year during the regular season know Niemi’s playing time scenario is a carbon copy of last year, so there should be no concerns as to whether he’s playing too often.
With the Blackhawks, Niemi split playing time the first half of the season with Cristobal Huet before taking over the primary duties. In San Jose, Niemi split the netminding duties at the start of the year with Antero Niittymaki. When injuries sidelined Niittymaki, Niemi found his “A” game at the right time.
|San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi (31) stops a shot by Pittsburgh Penguins' Max Talbot during overtime. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) |
And looking at Niemi’s track record with Chicago last season, playing a ton down the stretch seems to be just the right formula.
“I like playing a lot,” Niemi said.
The man who makes the ultimate call on how much Niemi plays agrees.
“I think he plays better the more he plays,” McLellan said. “Goaltenders are different and they don’t like being off the ice very long. He enjoys the work load right now. He hasn’t come to us and talked about being tired. We’ll make day-to-day decisions.”
When the season didn’t start ideally and he wasn’t seeing the minutes he carried late last year, Niemi found a way to bring himself back to his expected level by looking inward instead of for excuses.
“Nemo’s work ethic is second to none,” McLellan said.
When it comes to the specifics of his improved goals against stats, Niemi points to the five players always in front of him. The netminder is the last man standing, but without everyone’s efforts, his job is more difficult.
“The guys are playing really well,” Niemi said. “Everybody is coming back and they’re clearing all the rebounds.”
|San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi (31), of Finland, is congratulated by teammate right wing Devin Setoguchi (16) after their 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings in an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) |
Niemi believes in the men in front of him, but it’s a mutual feeling.
“For as much as he tells you our team makes him feel good and comfortable, the same goes the other way too,” McLellan said. “They know when he goes in the net that he’s played really well lately and he’s there to cover up for them if they error.”
The team’s efforts are paying off not just for their goaltender, but for the entire club. It’s not just the blueliners making the sacrifices to preventing scoring chances. To a man, they’ve been as hard on every puck battle as any team in the league lately.
“It’s a combination of everybody,” Dan Boyle
said. “After the six losses in a row, we really buckled down defensively. It starts with the goalie and moves on out. The defensemen have done a good job and the guys are blocking shots. It’s really good team defense, as good as I’ve seen.”
Those same players also know Niemi’s puck stopping ability ranks with the best in the NHL and that they won’t need to score a lot of goals if they give Niemi a chance.
“Obviously he’s going to be modest, but he’s been playing really, really well and is probably the reason we are so hot right now,” Joe Thornton
said. “He’s an all-world goaltender. He’s feeling good and he’s really, really confident right now.”
“He deserves most of the credit,” McLellan said of the improved play. “He’s doing a great job.”
|San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi (31), of Finland, deflects a shot by Detroit Red Wings winger Henrik Zetterberg (40), of Sweden, during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) |
The players will not stop their all-out defensive attack down the stretch and Niemi’s numbers should continue to benefit.
“At the end of the day, everybody has to produce more offensively, but it will not be at the cost of playing in our own end,” McLellan said. “Quite frankly, we’ve work hard on it the last month, month- and-a-half. We need to continue to improve in that area. We’re into playoff hockey right now and that is checking, gritty, working hard, tight special teams. Like every other team in the League, we’ve played it that way the last month and that’s just the way the standings have presented it for everybody. It will continue that way right to the end.”
Ideally to another Pacific Division Championship and an even longer Stanley Cup Playoff run.NEXT GAME
San Jose will conclude their three-game road trip Friday with a 6 p.m. start in Calgary. The contest will be on CSN California, 98.5 and 102.1 KFOX and www.sjsharks.com.