Their on-ice time has been nearly equal. Niittymaki has appeared in 19 games (12-3-3, 2.31 goals-against average and .910 save percentage). Niemi has been in 16 games, going 6-8-2, 3.15 and .897.
“They’re both earning and getting opportunities. That’s where we’re at right now,” Head Coach Todd McLellan said.
Both are from Finland. Both play the same position. With some teams, players vying for the same starting role may not like each other. But there’s no animosity, on or off-the-ice, here.
“You concentrate on your own things,” Niemi said, “but it would be harder and you would have more things on your mind if the relationship wasn’t that good. I’ve never had a bad relationship with the other goalie, but I’ve heard stories about other places. We’re good here.”
“It’s been going well. It’s easier that we get along pretty well,” Niittymaki said.
Part of the success is the easy going nature of these netminders from Finland. They’re both driven to succeed, but know the other’s success benefits the team as a whole.
“As far as the work relationship and how they relate to the team, I think it’s exceptional,” McLellan said.
“I think they compliment each other very well,” defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic
said. “They’re good friends and that helps.”
While both hail from Finland, they had little communication before coming to San Jose. Their bond has formed in Silicon Valley.
“We didn’t know each other too much. We had met once before,” Niemi said. “I’d seen him once in Finland in my whole life.”
Niittymaki and Niemi are strangers no longer and are experiencing much of the same life changes in California.
“They’re from the same country and their families are feeling the same thing being in a new city,” McLellan said. “I think they’ve got to lean on each other and they’ve done a good job. I think (Vice President and Assistant General Manager) Wayne Thomas and (Goaltending Development Coach) Corey Schwab have done a good job with them as well.”
McLellan hasn’t used a stringent rotation for his netminding duo. Who will play and when isn’t provided too far in advance, even if the coaching staff already has an idea in mind.
“There hasn’t been balance in that it’s one game and then the next game,” McLellan said. “Keeping them off balance has kept them alert a little bit. They don’t know when they are going. I don’t always explain why. That’s kept them sharp in practice and kept them working together.”
Besides keeping the goaltenders, there’s another reason for not rotating them every game or every two games.
“They’re a little different and one lends itself to be a potential better starter against certain teams,” McLellan said. “Whether it’s the forecheck or a puck possession team vs. a dump team. There’s one or the other I would rather have in certain situations.”
For the players, they never tried getting into the business of worrying about what they can’t control.
“At the end of the day, we just worry about our own business,” Niittymaki said. “Whenever you play, you play and you need to play well. If you’re not playing and you start worrying about it, the next time you go in, you’re probably not going to play well.”
The reason San Jose has had success with both goalies is they each have earned high praise for their performances from their defensemen.
“We have a lot of confidence in them,” Vlasic said. “They make big saves when we need them and they do a good job. It’s easy to say at the beginning of the year we need confidence in them because goalies are such a huge part of the team. Now we’ve built that confidence in them.”
The duo has also adjusted to what the coaching staff’s system required of them and the players know how to react to them.
“I think I’m getting to know these guys pretty well, the system and what the coaches want us to do back there,” Niittymaki said. “Right now I feel pretty comfortable.”
“At the beginning, it was two brand new goalies different than Nabby (Evgeni Nabokov, who left the Sharks after the 2009-10 season),” Vlasic said. “You get adjusted to both, how they play the puck, how they play without it. They’re starting to play a lot more with the puck. They’re not overly aggressive with it. They will play it when it’s necessary, but they’re not like Nabby who would come out every single time and try to play it. I think it’s going well with the tandem we’ve got.”
As for off-the-ice, Niemi and Niittymaki continue to learn more about each other.
“He’s a pretty quiet guy and he works really hard. Pretty much what I expected. The Finnish guys don’t speak much,” Niittymaki said with a smile about Niemi. “He gets going when you talk about hockey. He’s an easy guy to hang out with.”
“He’s an experienced guy and really calm and patient on the ice,” Niemi said of Niittymaki. “He’s relaxed off the ice too.”
The two are not inseparable off the ice, but they do enjoy spending time around each other’s family.
“To me, you can see they’re starting to feel comfortable here,” McLellan said. “They’re starting to see what we’re doing with the defensemen, what we’re doing on the penalty kill. They control the play a little bit more. They just feel better in the net.”
McLellan has acknowledged, and has shown, he’s willing to ride a hot hand for a little bit, but don’t expect any quick changes to the playing opportunities.
“They’ve pushed each other and it’s been good,” McLellan said. “I’m comfortable and I sense they ‘re comfortable.”
And if comfortable means riding a winning streak where both have played, keep using the same formula.
“When it’s all said and done,” McLellan said. “I believe we are going to need both of them.”
“WHITS” IS BACK
Former Sharks forward Ray Whitney will return to HP Pavilion Thursday night with the Phoenix Coyotes. Whitney is the only tie to the Sharks inaugural season still playing in the National Hockey League. Whiney has two claims to fame in Sharks history: he was part of the team’s first draft class and scored the series-clinching goal in double overtime of Game Seven in the 1995 Western Conference Quarterfinals against Calgary. In San Jose’s first season (1991-92), Whitney skated in two games and recorded three points.
Whitney has played for eight NHL clubs and totaled more than 1,100 games.
San Jose will play hosts to Phoenix Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at HP Pavilion and tickets can be found at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office and at www.ticketmaster.com. The contest will be available on CSN California, 98.5 KFOX and www.sjsharks.com.