When the Sharks signed Antero Niittymaki this summer, the plan was to have him split time in the nets with Thomas Greiss
. Then San Jose signed Chicago’s Antti Niemi
and Niittymaki had a new partner in the nets.
The signing of the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender definitely had the fans’ attention, but right now Niittymaki is showing the reason San Jose targeted him early in the summer.
Niittymaki has earned points for the Sharks in every start, going 4-0-1 in the first nine games. He’s fifth in the NHL in save percentage (.929) and goals-against-average (1.88). McLellan has previously stated both goaltenders will play significantly this season, but Niittymaki is hot and he’s started four of San Jose’s last five games, all victories.
“When we started in camp, we gave both of them an opportunity,” McLellan said. “We alternated them a bit. Nitty has had the better hand than Nemo (Niemi). We expect Nemo to get back to where we and he expect him to be, but Nitty’s game has been extremely strong. The guys are extremely confident and comfortable in front of him. I really believe he’s starting to settle in more and understand the terms we use, how we penalty kill. That likely makes him feel more comfortable in net as well.”
Niittymaki and his teammates definitely agree with the coach’s assessment.
“I feel pretty comfortable in net and the guys are playing pretty well,” Niittymaki said. “We’ve been able to win some games. It’s been good.”
“He’s stopping the puck. I know that sounds stupid, but at the end of the day that’s what you need out of your goalie,” Dan Boyle
said. “As a defenseman, if you happen to turn it over, it’s nice to see the big save and he’s given us a couple of those.”
Niittymaki’s ability to stop was a given, but he’s adapting to the Sharks style with regards to specific in-game assignments like handling the puck.
“There are little things,” Niittymaki said. “It’s more like playing the puck and knowing what the D is doing when you’re behind the net. System wise, they (the coaches) want you to go stop the puck (behind the net) and make a play. Before it was just if I go there I do. The little things don’t affect your game, you just have to know it.”
That comfort level with his new teammates is part of the successful equation. Stopping the pucks is one thing. Helping jump start the offense as almost an extra defenseman is another and a big bonus from a goaltender.
“I really believe he’s starting to settle in more and understand the terms we use, how we penalty kill,” McLellan said. “That likely makes him feel more comfortable in the net as well. Both of them have gotten better as the year has gone on and you can see improvement in that area (puck handling).”
From a skill set, nothing about Niittymaki has surprised McLellan, but from a mental standpoint, he’s been a pleasant surprise.
“I was told he was more of quiet guy, a really good guy, but a quiet guy,” McLellan said. “I see that in him, but I also see him having fun in the drills. When you get close enough to the net, you can see him smiling, laughing or fooling around with somebody. I think that passion in contagious too. For a quiet guy, there’s some life and character to him on the ice.”
Niittymaki probably won’t be the guy holding court every day in the room, but he will flash that personality enough that those around him will see it.
“We played a competitive center ice game the other day and he even tried to score,” McLellan said. “The nets are that close and he was smiling. He was enjoying it. I like that in him.”
Niittymaki has been on some talented offensive clubs in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. With the Sharks, he needs to be “on” at every practice.
“If you’re not ready in practice, you’re going to know it,” Niittymaki said. “There’s a lot more talent than I thought. Being in the east, I only knew the big names. They can hurt you in practice if you’re not ready.”
A 4-0-1 mark would work for every National Hockey League goaltender for each five-game segment, but Niittymaki feels he can find more in his game.
“I try to relax before the game and see what’s out there and what’s going to happen,” Niittymaki said. “I don’t feel like I’m in the zone. Hopefully the zone is coming. I’m feeling comfortable right now and finding the puck.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
The Sharks skated at Sharks Ice at San Jose this morning before departing for Minnesota.
San Jose visit the Wild Tuesday at 5 p.m. and the game will be carried on Versus, 98.5 KFOX and www.sjsharks.com.