SAN JOSE - If you were to ask players, coaches, management, media, and fans alike who the Sharks MVP has been thus far this season, the overwhelming answer would be none other than goaltender Antti Niemi.
The Finnish born netminder was at the center of Vezina Trophy talk early on in this shortened season and although that talk may have died down as this season has progressed, Niemi still ranks amongst the league leaders in every meaningful category.
Out of all NHL goaltenders who have started 20 or more games Niemi ranks the following:
Wins: Tied for 1st (19)
GAA: Tied for 4th (2.09)
SV %: 4th (.926)
SO: 5th (3)
And not that anyone really keeps track, but Niemi does lead all netminders in total ice time, in other words he’s a work horse.
As it stands, Columbus Blue Jackets’ Sergei Bobrovsky, New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, and the Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask all probably have a tiny advantage over Niemi in the race for the Vezina.
But if the Sharks netminder continues his hot stretch as of late, (1.46 GAA, .946 SV%, and two shutouts during the current seven game winning streak), then the Sharks MVP could jump right back into the lead for Vezina consideration.
So what does a Vezina candidate like Niemi think about double screens? Does he want his defense to box out the traffic in front or play off so he can see the puck?
“”Either way, if we’re early [in the sequence] than maybe box out but [definitely] try to avoid the double screen.” chimed ‘Nemo’. “If there is only one guy, I should be able to look around him. If there’s two then it’s too wide to be able to look around.”
What about defensemen blocking shots in close to the crease? Can that throw a goalie off?
“No not really” added Niemi. “But if they’re close to me, if they know they’re going to have it, than they can have it. But I don’t want them to go for it if they’re not sure they can get it.”
While Niemi has been a steady presence for the Sharks during his first two years with the club, this season he has noticeably raised his game. He seems to be playing at a much higher level. At Saturday’s Sharks practice I asked him if there was any particular reason for the heightened performance, perhaps the proverbial “chip” on his shoulder after a slight down year last season?
“No, not really [no chip], I think we had a bad stretch last year, long road trip, those times it was tough.” recalled Niemi. “After that, [when we were] trying to fight to get in the playoffs, I thought I felt fine then so I’m not really thinking about last year. Just trying to be more confident, more patient, not worry about everything else, just keep focused on the ice. [I think] I’m more relaxed.”
What about working on any particular part of his game to get better?
“I think just working hard during the lockout. Pretty much the basic movements, being at the gym trying to get stronger, not so much one thing on the ice but just overall movement. The things we don’t have time to do during the season.”
While Niemi wouldn’t admit to it, what I was hoping he might say is that he has worked specifically on his rebound control. Since he came into the league, rebound control has never been a strong suit and at times considered a weakness by many.
But you can call Niemi’s rebound control a weakness no more. The Stanley Cup champion is doing a much better job at swallowing up pucks and directing rebounds away from the dangerous areas. Or at least this has seemed to be the case to yours truly, what about you coach?
“Yeah I think that’s a good observation” commented Sharks head coach Todd McLellan. “I think he would tell you it’s part and parcel with the defensemen’s play in front of the net. No goaltender is perfect, there is going to be garbage that’s left around. He needs help from the back end and our low forward. And they’ve done a pretty good job, much better this year than they did down the stretch last year. So in turn, the goaltender is not trying to play a perfect game, he’s just trying to play his game and he’s been effective.”
With Niemi’s improved rebound control this season, it is hard to point out any particular flaw in his game. He’s arguably playing better goal right now than any netminder has in franchise history and that will only help Team Teal’s push come playoff time.
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