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’, 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.