A little over a week ago it wasn't difficult to imagine that Antti Niemi would be a St. Louis Blue or Dallas Star or Ottawa Senator by now, as rumors swirled around the Sharks' impending unrestricted free agent goaltender leading up to the NHL's trade deadline. Tonight, after a second straight extraordinary performance by Niemi that keeps the Sharks' faint playoff hopes alive, Doug Wilson is probably feeling pretty happy he didn't pull the trigger on a deal involving the Finnish netminder.
Niemi stopped all 35 shots he faced, including a late shorthanded breakaway from Mike Fisher that would have tied the score, as for the second game in a row the Sharks were decidedly outplayed but escaped with two points entirely on the back of their starting goalie. The only player who has scored on Niemi over his last 84 shots is Sidney Crosby as Niemi's overall save percentage on the season has now improved to a solid .916 which would be the third-highest finish of his career.
There's no question Niemi's brilliance of late is masking some pretty serious structural flaws with this team. Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture continue to get demolished in tough minutes more games than not, Scott Hannan and Brent Burns attempting a breakout is a recipe for disaster and the penalty kill is still giving up too many scoring chances. But Niemi has bailed them out twice now, singlehandedly keeping intact the Sharks' postseason dreams. Hopefully he can keep it up for about fourteen more games.
- Niemi's rebound control was unimpeachable this game. Granted, the Sharks generally did a decent job keeping the Predators to the outside, at least in the first two periods, but there were hardly ever any second chances available for Nashville when they did put pucks on net with Niemi swallowing initial shots all game long.
- The Forsberg-Ribeiro-Neal line gets all the headlines but Colin Wilson is quietly having an outstanding season and was easily the best skater on the ice for either team tonight. He's big, fast, skilled and, incidentally, a restricted free agent this summer. Wouldn't be a bad trade or offer sheet target for the Sharks.
- Solid game all around from the third line but I especially loved a subtle little between-the-legs play Chris Tierney made in the neutral zone in the second period in order to buy time to set up Brent Burns for a drive down the left wing for a scoring chance. 99% of the time that play becomes a useless dump-in so it's a good sign that Tierney not only has the skill level to pull it off but feels comfortable enough at the NHL level to try it.
- Speaking of getting more comfortable, Mirco Mueller seems to be visibly playing with more confidence now that his nightly spot in the lineup is secure. He's taking more chances advancing the puck and is sneaking into soft spots in the offensive zone. Offense as a whole is obviously the side of his game the Sharks need to develop if they hope he can become an impact defenseman in the future. You just wish he'd gotten a chance to regularly play and improve that skillset this season, either in the WHL or over Scott Hannan on the big club.
- Justin Braun's big point shot in the second period set up Tomas Hertl's goal, the first the Sharks' second power play unit has produced since January 10th. There's little doubt in my mind Braun deserves to hold on to his spot on that unit when Matt Irwin returns to the lineup, with Vlasic getting shuffled off it.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Antti Niemi
2nd Star: Chris Tierney
3rd Star: Tomas Hertl