Antti Niemi is certainly the San Jose Sharks’ future at goaltender, as certified by his recent contract extension through 2015.
The 2010 Stanley Cup-winning goalie finished the regular season on a roll as the Sharks arrived in the playoffs at the hottest team in the National Hockey League over the second half.
But — right here, right now — the Sharks would be better served going with backup Antero Niittymaki tonight in Game Six of their first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings on the road.
And anyone who has watched the previous five games knows why this might be a good idea — right here, right now.
Coach Todd McLellan has announced he’ll stick with Niemi as the starter tonight, but after the two debacles in this series — Games Three and Five combined, the Sharks’ top goalie gave up seven goals facing only 14 shots — it can be considered a big risk for San Jose.
Meanwhile, in relieving Niemi in both those games — one a Sharks’ miracle comeback win and one a clinic of goaltending put on by Los Angeles netminder Jonathan Quick resulting in a tough loss — Niittymaki has been very solid, giving up only one goal combined while making 30 saves.
Sure, Niemi went 28 straight games as the starting goalie from February 2 to April 4, and his 26-5-4 record since January 15 was one the primary reasons the Sharks went from 12th in the conference to second in the final three months of the regular season.
However, remember that when the season started, the two new goalies for the team were Option 1A and Option 1B. When Niittymaki’s season was disrupted by injury, Niemi capitalized on the opportunity and parlayed his excellent play into the contract extension.
Otherwise, who knows how the regular season might have turned out for Niittymaki? His numbers this year, accrued mostly in the first half of the season when the whole team was struggling (he had one start on the year after January 13), were a pedestrian 12-7-3 with a 2.71 goals-against average and a mediocre .896 save percentage.
But look at Niemi’s early numbers — an 9-13-2 record with a 2.85 GAA and a .907 SP through January 13 when the team was wallowing in 12th place — shows both goalies to be somewhat even in the early part of the season, and Niittymaki was unable to benefit from the team’s midseason improvement due to his injury.
Both goalies were signed in the offseason with the hope the depth would improve the team, and it did — both in the regular season and now in the playoffs, obviously. The career numbers favor Niemi in terms of GAA and save percentage, by a lot, but the No. 1 guy is struggling right now.
And that’s why you signed the No. 2 guy — as insurance just in case the No. 1 guy has a rough stretch.
Niittymaki came through in Games Three and Five when the team needed him, and that’s important to remember. This isn’t a judgment on Niemi’s short-term or long-term value to the Sharks; it’s a gut call in playoff crunch time that change is necessary for San Jose in net.
Right here, right now — Niittymaki should be starting Game Six, and the Sharks are playing a dangerous game by throwing Niemi to the dogs again right now.