Antti Niemi is your Game 7 starter, as he should be

Thearon W. Henderson

After watching Game 6 from the bench, Antti Niemi will start one of the most important games in franchise history.

Alex Stalock isn't the reason the Sharks lost Game 6. But he never should have been in net to begin with.

That isn't a slight against Stalock who has performed admirably in his 27 career NHL appearances with San Jose. But the key words in that sentence, as always, are "27 career NHL appearances." There simply isn't a large enough sample size with Stalock at this level to conclude he's anywhere near as good as the .931 save percentage he's posted over just 593 shots faced in the big leagues suggests. In the AHL, where Stalock does have a large body of work, he had a .907 save percentage on 3,939 shots faced over four years. Goalies who post numbers that low in the minors rarely turn out to be starters at the NHL level.

Antti Niemi, for all his aesthetic failings and for all the criticism he draws, is a proven starter at this level and a damn good one at that, boasting the seventh-best even-strength save percentage in the league since joining the Sharks. He certainly didn't look like it in the first five games of this series, and was probably the main reason the Sharks failed to sweep the Kings after outplaying them in Game 4. But pegging a goalie as inadequate based on five games is even crazier than anointing one a starter after 27. Todd McLellan did both following Game 5, the latest in a long string of overreactions to small sample sizes by the Sharks' coaching staff over the course of this season.

Darryl Sutter didn't waver after Jonathan Quick was dreadful in the first three games of this series. He trusted his starter and McLellan should have as well, especially considering the difference between Niemi and Quick isn't anywhere near as large as some observers make it out to be. Thankfully, McLellan appears to have corrected his mistake as Niemi will get the start in tonight's pivotal, franchise-defining Game 7. Niemi has won a Stanley Cup, has more postseason experience than any other starter in these playoffs and he's been in this exact spot before: he stopped 38 of 40 Detroit shots in the deciding game of the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals after the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead. Niemi will bounce back from a mediocre regular season and terrible start to these playoffs; the only question is whether that bounceback happens tonight or five months from now.

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