It’s not often the Sharks need their goaltender to bail them out. A deep offensive attack combined with responsible play in their own zone is why they are once again challenging for the President’s Trophy for most points in the league.
On Sunday, though, they needed Antti Niemi to stand tall, as a fatigued group playing its third road game in four days was not at the top of its game. He did, stealing a game for his club for perhaps the first time this season.
The 30-year-old made 41 saves in blanking the New York Rangers and almost singlehandedly claiming two points for his team.
He also sent a message with his best performance of the season, according to head coach Todd McLellan.
“I think tonight, what Nemo did – not to the hockey world, but just to his teammates and to the club – was say, hey, I’m Nemo. I’m capable of doing this,” McLellan said. “Not that he’s been weak by any means, he’s been a very solid goaltender, but that was a heck of a performance. He just basically said to his teammates, you guys are getting ready and playing hard, I am too.”
Many hockey experts, including those residing in Las Vegas, have pegged the St. Louis Blues as the team to beat in the Western Conference. It’s easy to see why. The Blues addressed their biggest weakness by acquiring all-world goalie Ryan Miller at the trade deadline to man the pipes. Since bringing in Miller and the agitating Steve Ott from Buffalo, the Blues have a 7-0-1 mark, and lead the league with 97 points.
If the Sharks can get the kind of performance from Niemi that they got on Sunday, and for much of last season when he was the team’s MVP, they could end up being the team to beat. At the very least, they'd be a difficult matchup for St. Louis, or anyone else.
Fortunately for them, Niemi is trending the right direction again after the Olympic break, and maybe McLellan and general manager Doug Wilson should send a thank you card to Team Finland’s coaching staff for keeping Niemi on the bench as the third string goaltender during its run to a bronze medal.
Since the season resumed, Niemi is 5-1-0 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Compare that to his three-plus months before the break, when he was 20-11-5 with a 2.66 GAA and .907 SP from Oct. 30 though Feb. 7.
McLellan points to the Olympic break, but also to starting Alex Stalock in three of the first four games when the regular season resumed on Feb. 27 in Philadelphia.
“[Niemi] didn’t play right away, he didn’t go back-to-back games, he had a chance to work on his game, get back to the North American size arena,” McLellan said. “He looks refreshed, so now it’s time to put a string together himself.”
After rejoining the team on the East Coast after the break, Niemi himself said back on Feb. 26 that the rest was a good thing for him. He repeated that after the performance against New York.
“I think the break came at a great time for me. Have a little time off of hockey, and not playing,” he said.
Niemi is a workhorse, and is often one of the last players off of the ice during practice. He indicated that maybe he had been practicing a little bit too much, and maybe learned a valuable lesson in Sochi.
“It’s not how long you stay there, it’s more how much you focus on what you’re doing there,” he said about practicing.
Niemi’s performance gave the Sharks their 20th win on the road, the first time they’ve reached that plateau since the 2010-11 season. It was also their sixth straight win, and they have a right to feel positive about their game, and their goaltender.
“We’re on a winning streak, so we’re pretty confident we can go a long way,” Niemi said.