McLellan: 'The fact that we get time to rest will work in our favor'
Antti Niemi tied Henrik Lundqvist and Niklas Backstrom for the most regular season wins this season with 24. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
SAN JOSE -- Less than 24 hours after he helped his team complete a first round sweep of Vancouver, Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was given the highest honor of his professional career when the 29-year-old was named as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as league’s best goaltender.
The mild mannered Finland native remained just that when asked about the recognition for his outstanding season on Thursday.
“It feels great, obviously. It means I did a good job and played well, but it’s not that huge right now,” Niemi said. “We’re in the middle of the playoffs.”
They are, and they likely wouldn’t be without the performance of the man who was chosen by the local media as their Player of the Year. Head coach Todd McLellan has said numerous times that Niemi has been the team’s most consistent performer throughout the shortened season.
Niemi apparently benefited from the lockout, spending the first few weeks in the Bay Area after the September 15 shut down but quickly relocating to Finland in October to get some game action. He spent about a month there before returning to North America, bringing with him his old goalie coach from his teenage years, Jarmo Liimatainen.
Dan Boyle, who was a regular at the lockout skates at Sharks Ice for the duration of the labor battle, noticed a better and stronger Niemi after his stint overseas.
“When he came back, I just felt like even in practice you could tell he had improved. He obviously worked on some things and just elevated his play,” Boyle said.
“It was good for a month,” Niemi said. “Then working with [Liimatainen] and getting lots of hours on the ice, I think it did help me.”
Niemi specifically worked on lower body strength and his technique, after injuries played a role in his inconsistent 2011-12 season. NHL players were forbidden, of course, to work with any team personnel during the lockout.
“They were doing funky things out on the ice, bringing out weights and doing all sorts of weird things,” Boyle said.
Weird? Maybe. But, “I think we did the right things during the lockout,” Niemi said.
There is no clear-cut favorite to win the Vezina, whether it be Niemi, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist or Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky, although many have predicted Bobrovsky the early frontrunner.
Not surprisingly, McLellan thinks his goaltender deserves to take it home.
“Hopefully there’s enough people across the country that watched him play and really, truly understand the impact he’s had on our group and our organization this year,” McLellan said. “That’s not to take away from the other two candidates, by any means.”
Patrick Marleau said: “All season long he’s been there for us, basically. He held the fort for us in some pretty lopsided games that we’ve given up a ton of chances. He gives us a chance to win every night.”
Niemi, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, was asked if this is the best he’s played in his five-year NHL career.
“I think so, especially being more and more consistent. I think that’s been one of the good things.”
And what would it mean to win the Vezina?
“It would be great, but I’m not really thinking about it right now,” he said.