According to numerous sources goaltender Antti Niemi will start game six for the San Jose Sharks tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
Niemi was victimized last night in HP Pavilion, giving up three goals in four shots. The first goal occurred after Niemi forced the puck up the boards after being pressured by the Kings forecheck-- Brad Richardson sent the puck at Rob Scuderi at the opposite point, and with all the time in the world to ready his shot, Scuderi sent a puck that Kyle Clifford got a piece of to deflect it past Niemi. The second goal of the night followed a neutral zone turnover by Dan Boyle, with the ensuing two on one rush causing Niemi to kick out a rebound into the slot that Clifford would bang home.
The third goal against, born of a defensive zone turnover by Niclas Wallin, saw Dustin Penner wire a wrist shot past Niemi glove side. It was one that Niemi would have liked to have back considering he had a clear look at the shot.
After three goals on four shots, Niemi was pulled. It was the second time he has been pulled this series, the first being a brutal game three that saw San Jose trail 4-0 before making a comeback for the ages to win 6-5 in overtime. These outings lead to speculation that Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan would turn to backup Antero Niittymaki in a pivotal game six.
That speculation was put to rest this afternoon, and McLellan hinted at it last night, putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of his defenseman and their turnovers.
"If you look at the three goals, maybe we could live with one of them. But the other two, the puck is on our tape, our D have complete control of it, and it's in our net," McLellan said. "We're disappointed about that."
"At that point we needed to change something, and with 18 skaters dressed, we change the goaltender."
With San Jose facing down Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, who was absolutely brilliant last night during the course of his 52 save performance, all eyes will be on Niemi as he attempts to rebound from a poor postseason outing once again. If the Sharks are to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Niemi is going to have to be the backbone. And he'll be given every conceivable opportunity to take his team there.
The writing for that has been on the wall for months now.
Down the stretch Niemi was phenomenal for San Jose. From January 15th through April 4th Niemi made 34 consecutive starts in a row, going 25-4-4 with a .927 SV% an 2.05 GAA in the process. He was named "Sharks Foundation Player of The Year", as well as earning the illustrious 2011 Fin Award for Sharks MVP. That performance made it difficult for Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan to give his backups playing time, and with a mere four appearances since January 13th for Niittymaki, questions of whether or not he is ready for a postseason start in game six on the road are relevant.
And while Niittymaki's performances in relief have been good, they haven't exactly been great-- San Jose has dominated play in front of him, with very little Kings scoring chances having to be stymied.
The fact of the matter is, the Sharks committed to Niemi in March on two levels. When Niittymaki returned to the team following his injury, Niemi continued to receive starts, playing in back to back games down the stretch. None were more clear-cut than the final weekend of the regular season which saw Niemi start a home and home against Phoenix with the Pacific Division title already clinched.
Furthermore, there is the undeniable fact that the organization gave him a four year $15.2 MM contract on March 1st of this year. This isn't to say that the size of a contract is dictating playing time-- far from it. What it is to say is that the organization clearly has a lot of confidence in the 27 year old Finn, which is in no small part due to the Stanley Cup ring he earned last postseason.
Niemi bounced back in game four-- whether he bounces back in game six won't be known until the game gets underway, even if historical data suggests that Niemi does play well after a bad start. With San Jose facing down Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, who was absolutely brilliant last night during the course of his 52 save performance, all eyes will be on Niemi to match that type of game-changing ability.
Because if he struggles again early in the first the decision will once again come down to which goaltender inspires more confidence to win hockey games.
Confidence that, at this point, is beginning to waver more than many expected it ever could in mid-March.