Sharks Gameday: Goaltending of the Tandem Variety

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7:30 PST
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12-14-5, 29 points 17-11-5, 39 points
15th in Western Conference
7th in Western Conference

Television
CSN-CA (HD)
Radio
98.5 KFOX, Sjsharks.com
Antagonists
Copper & Blue
Lowetide

Confidence. It's a word that is used often when discussing the sporting life, and perhaps no position in the entirety of modern professional sports relies (or is said to rely) on confidence more than goaltending.

It's a fickle position, where one tiny mistake that puts you off your angle by half an inch can determine a period, a game, a series, a season, a career. Goalies are relentlessly worshipped like a deity when they play well, and on the very next day, immediately castrated when things go wrong.

And oh how many things can go wrong. When you think of the San Jose Sharks upset of the St. Louis Blues in 2000, the first thing that immediately comes to mind isn't the scoring depth that won the series. It isn't even necessarily Steve Shields performance. It's Owen Nolan's shot from center ice that beat Roman Turek to put the Sharks ahead 2-0 in the dying seconds of the first period. A goal so poetically brutal that the classic N64 game Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was banned from all homes following the series due to the fact that the protagonist's name was all too similar to Roman Turek's*. A goal so magnificently morose, not a single child born in St. Louis after April 25, 2000 has been named Roman for fear of inciting the St.. Louis Hockey Gods and causing a plague of locusts to run rampant within the city walls*.

*Unverified.

Goaltending. The most unfairly maligned, and overly praised, position in all of sports.

Confidence. A word most commonly used to write the narrative after the final boxscore has been published. You either have it or ya don't, and you only know you saw it until you see what happened afterwards. It's a qualitative judgement made by fans and coaches alike, and one that has begun to envelop both Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki as they battle to receive starts between the pipes.

The question posed today is whether or not San Jose plays differently in front of their netminders. In other words, we are all completely aware of Niemi's propensity to give up rebounds in the crease, and cognisant of the fact that Niittymaki handles those initial shots more adeptly, giving his wingers an opportunity to break up the ice without having to collapse down low. But do these skill sets produce varying shot totals for and against? What about penalty differential, caused by playing in one zone more than another? How about goal support, or any other number of statistics that could be influenced by the goaltenders?

Today, we attempt to find out.

Provided below are the numbers for Sharks performances in front of Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki this season, broken down into some categories I found to be relevant. I've thrown the 4-0 loss against Calgary out of the sample due to the fact both netminders made an appearance (Niemi was pulled ten minutes into the first) and I wanted to isolate the data set to include games where the goalie between the pipes was constant throughout.


Sharks performances in front of Goaltenders

Goaltender
Record
SF/G
SA/G
GF/G
GA/G
PP/G
PK/G
Antti Niemi
6-7-2
32.33
30.73
2.66
3.00
3.53
3.66
Antero Nittymaki
11-3-3 36.00
25.82
3.47
2.47
4.76
3.24

By all of these basic metrics, the Sharks have performed better with Antero Niittymaki between the pipes compared to Antti Niemi. They put more pucks on net, give up less pucks on their own net, score more goals, give up less goals, draw more penalties, and go to the box less often. Furthermore, the team has a higher shooting percentage in front of Nittymaki, posting a 9.6% rate of conversion compared to 8.2%.

The next logical step in this is to see the quality of competition each netminder has faced. To do this, I have taken the seasonal averages of each opponent, making sure that if a goalie faced a particular team twice (Niemi against Chicago for example), the corresponding data is adjusted to account for this. Opposing team's records are calculated on a points per game basis.


Sharks Goaltenders "Quality of Competition"

Goaltender
Record
SF/G
SA/G
GF/G
GA/G
PP/G
PK/G
Antti Niemi
19-12-0
30.49
30.35
2.78
2.73
3.84
3.75
Antero Nittymaki
17-14-0 29.40
30.91
2.76
2.91
3.81
3.76

Niemi has faced tougher teams in terms of overall record (Niemi's opponents average 1.23 points per game compared to Nittymaki's, who average 1.10 points per game). Spread out over the course of an 82 game NHL season, Niemi is playing teams who are averaging 100 point years while Niittymaki is facing teams who are averaging 90 point years-- in essence, the difference between the playoffs and hitting the links in April. Outside of that however, there is no difference in each individual category listed here. Both Finnish goaltenders have faced teams with nearly identical goal, shot, and penalty numbers. It's hard to make the case that either netminder has been subject to more difficult assignments, but if forced to choose, the slight edge goes to Niemi due to his opponents record.

Establishing a goaltenders "quality of competition" is new ground for the organization and its followers. Evgeni Nabokov received the vast majority of starts during his time in San Jose, making analysis such as this inconsequential-- there wasn't enough sample size on per season basis to draw any reasonable conclusions when attempting to figure out which goalie was facing the hardest teams throughout the year. These numbers need to be revisited later in the year to see if any noticeable trends will develop, because as of this moment, they are fairly static.

Three weeks ago I made the case that, despite his atrocious SV%, Niemi was steadily improving and should not be faulted for the majority of his goals against from late November to early December. That has rung true lately, as Niemi has continued to give San Jose quality starts. But with Antero Niittymaki also on the rise (and still buoyed by a phenomenal start to the year), it sets up a situation where Todd McLellan will play the hot hand during the seasonal ebb and flow. Niether goaltender has established themself as the de facto number one as of this point, setting up a tandem that many predicted before the season began. Both are inconsistent and run in waves. The hope will always be that the peaks and valleys of the two Finns do not coincide for a prolonged stretch, and for the most part, both goalies have stepped into their role when the other has faltered.

Confidence is a fickle thing, and a fickle explanation to use when describing a team's performance. I have never been a big believer in "confidence" and "heart" and "grit" solely determining the outcome of hockey games because there are so many other factors that play a role in an individual win and loss. Your mother lied when she told you anything is possible, and Pierre McGuire lied when he told you a team won just because they had a monster (monster!) heart after the first period. Shit happens. Confidence is relative only to wins, just like momentum. The more wins you have the more confident you are. And you win hockey games because you outwork and outplay the other team, not because you won the night before, or have strung together two in a row.

Which isn't to say confidence, heart, and grit, The Holiest of Trinities in The Broadcaster's Bible, aren't present-- they most definitely are, effecting games in ways that are hard to pinpoint. That raw human emotion is an asset that should never be discarded when looking at a hockey team or your love life. It's important, just like a good shift from your fourth line or a wink from that girl across the bar is important. They're real, they exist, they affect situations. But they are far from the end all be all of what a win is comprised of.

Which is why it's hard for me to definitively state that the team has more confidence in Niittymaki as a goaltender based on their performance in front of him this season. I think of it as a rich Christmas stew that has cooked in the Crock Pot for an entire day-- rebound control is the beef, positioning is the potato, puck control is the celery, a big save is the broth. The case can be made that San Jose's totals are due to Niittymaki's ability to manage the pace of the game better than Niemi by deflecting shots to the corners and gobbling up rebounds in his glove and chest, ensuring that one of the League's best faceoff teams gets an opportunity to gain possession. Instead of the entire team being forced to collapse into the slot to clear rebounds they can take more chances on the breakout and push the play up the ice. Does that inspire more confidence in their ability to win, directly correlating with their better play in front of Niittymaki? Maybe. But I think this is probably more of a case of X's and O's (and some natural fluctation in team performance) rather than the gooey stuff between the ears and nose.

*****

Also, in case you forgot, the Sharks play the Oilers tonight. Remember when Jean-Francois Jacques took a couple of runs at Thornton and Heatley last season? I sure do.

Prediction: Sharks win 4-3. Goals by McGinn, Marleau, Pavelski, and Demers. McGinn, who was saving up his first goal of the season for FTF Night At The Tank, inadvertently takes a puck in the groin that dribbles past Khabibulin to win the game. His confidence is both improved and deflated all at the same time.

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