ANAHEIM – Corey Perry had no angle when he somehow slid the puck through Antti Niemi with less than three seconds left in the first period. That tied the game at 1-1.
In the second, Niemi was sluggish getting from his right to his left when Patrick Maroon – not exactly a speedster – curled the puck inside the post on a wraparound.
By the time the Ducks scored their third goal, a Maroon one-timer from the circle to restore Anaheim’s lead at 3-2, Todd McLellan had seen enough. He pulled Niemi in favor of Alex Stalock midway through the second period, but it was too late. The Sharks went on to lose, 5-2, and any hope they had of overtaking Anaheim for first place in the division vanished into the warm Southern California air.
“By the time that third one went in, you could feel the bench get a little deflated,” said McLellan, who was pleased with the Sharks’ response after the first two Anaheim markers. “We needed to do something at that point, so we made the change. I thought we responded well, again. Just not enough.”
Anaheim, which still has a chance at the top seed in the Western Conference, clinched its second straight division title. That means that San Jose will have to face the a daunting Kings team in the first round.
The Kings know what kind of performance they’ll get from Jonathan Quick. The Sharks, though, have to be wondering what they’ll see from Niemi, if he is in fact is the starter in Game 1. It's not inconceivable that McLellan would turn to Stalock, as not only are his numbers better than Niemi's across the board, but he’s much better at playing the puck and helping the team transition from defense to offense.
Niemi simply isn’t stopping shots that he was at this point last season, in which he was named as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
McLellan was asked point blank if Niemi is his goaltender going into the playoffs, which will begin at home next week.
“Nemo is one of our guys going into the playoffs, yes,” McLellan said.
Read into that what you will.
Despite the work of its starting goaltender, San Jose was pleased with its energy level and effort in the loss.
“We played a heck of a game. We played well. I thought we were in their end the majority of the night,” Joe Thornton said. “A couple soft goals, you lose the game. That’s all.”
Dan Boyle agreed that there was no faulting the Sharks’ compete-level.
“I thought we played pretty well. I thought our effort was good,” he said. “Guys were involved. Gave up some goals that we probably shouldn’t.”
There was also the obvious disappointment of not winning the division. Not only will the Sharks have the more difficult first round matchup, they’ll start on the road against the Ducks if they manage to make it past the Kings and Anaheim takes care of business in the first round.
“It would have been great, yeah, but we’re in the playoffs,” Thornton said. “We know who we’re going to play, and it’s going to be a heck of a first round, so, can’t wait.”
They’ll need a better game from their netminder, whoever it may be, to have any chance at knocking off Los Angeles.
“It probably wasn’t Nemo’s best game tonight, but we have faith in him, and Al has done a tremendous job this year,” Boyle said. “We have faith in our goaltending, and they’re going to have to play well for us to get where we want to go.”