Antti Niemi – who backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship last spring – turned away 30 of 32 shots Wednesday night as the Sharks knocked off the Blackhawks, 5-2.
Whether or not Niemi truly deserved the game’s first star is questionable, but in his first game against his former employers, the 27-year-old Shark goaltender came up with his best game of the season.
The only two goals to get past Niemi were fortunate bounces for Chicago. Blackhawks center Jake Dowell was credited with a second period goal which deflected in off his skate and Patrick Sharp’s third period goal was an absolutely brilliant deflection in the high slot.
Otherwise, Niemi was there to shut the door on the rest of Chicago’s chances and made all the saves expected of him.
In fact, despite numerous critics amongst the Sharks faithful for his “poor” play this season, Niemi has given the Sharks a chance to win more often than not thus far.
Indeed, his overall numbers coming into Wednesday night leave much to be desired. Holding a record of 2-4-1 with a .878 save percentage and a 3.91 GAA is far from pretty.
However, those numbers are highly inflated due to a couple of incredibly awful performances back in October by the entire Sharks team.
Now to be fair, Niemi has definitely been less impressive than his counterpart Antero Niittymaki thus far. But on that same token, he has also been left out to dry far more often than has Niittymaki.
Niemi was in net for games against Atlanta and Carolina at home earlier in the year where the Sharks as a whole were simply awful in all facets of the game.
Yet as the season has progressed, Niemi has improved his play quite considerably. While the team in front of him has still been mostly inconsistent, Niemi has upped his play to a higher level.
Including the 5-2 victory over the Blackhawks Wednesday, Niemi is now 2-1-1 in his last four games with a .910 save percentage and 3.02 GAA.
When you take the time to consider that the NHL regular season is only a quarter of the way through and that Niemi has only played just 428 minutes in goal (slightly over seven full games) due to splitting time with Niittymaki, and judgments should be reserved.
Yes, the numbers are certainly atrocious, but there simply hasn’t been enough games to truly make a claim on what this Stanley Cup Champion can bring to the team.
Obviously just being a Stanley Cup winner doesn’t mean he is necessarily a definite No. 1 goaltender in this league but a few stumbling blocks out of the gate certainly doesn’t mean he should be given up on as some fans out there have suggested.
The Sharks have elected to go with much more of a tandem in net this season rather than the one man show that was Evgeni Nabokov of years past.
And just because the early statistics suggest Niittymaki should be an All-Star and Niemi should be in the AHL doesn’t mean the Sharks ought to give up on their plan in goal.
After his performance against Chicago, not only will Niemi feel much more at ease about his individual performance, but the Sharks will be better off in more ways than one.
Having two goalies that can be relied upon equally to help win games will truly keep each goaltender fresh as they swap starts and potentially one of them can be effective trade bait.
Yes, I said it: trade bait.
While 20 games isn’t enough to rate individuals on how their overall season’s will end up, (especially those who have played in less than half that amount) it is clear that the Sharks, as they are currently constructed, will need to make a trade at some point.
Defensively, the Sharks need a boost, as adding a defenseman will be vital to their postseason hopes. Douglas Murray returned to action against the Blackhawks for the first time in four games and demonstrated just how critical he is to the Sharks’ ability to defend.
Unfortunately, the Sharks need more than just Murray. They need a consistent, shut-down defenseman who can play on the second pairing. Someone along the lines of, dare I say it, Scott Hannan.
The Sharks organization knows just how valuable a defenseman like Hannan – who spent his first seven seasons in San Jose – is to a team looking to win the Stanley Cup.
Hannan has the role of shutting down the top tier forwards of the opposing team game in and game out. And at 6’1″ Hannan is the same height of San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic but at 225, is 25 pounds heavier than his Shark counterpart.
Hannan combines effective stick-play and plays the body when needed to knock defenders off the puck. Vlasic, on the other hand just doesn’t fit the bill as he continually fails to engage physically.
The Sharks can score, no doubt about it. Despite having scoring troubles early on, San Jose has a proven offensive attack.
But if they are to win the Stanley Cup this season, they’ll do it with a mid-season defensive upgrade.
Otherwise, it’s going to be more of the same for the Sharks and their fans.