Sharks question No. 2: Will Niemi keep his job over Stalock?

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Sharks question No. 2: Will Niemi keep his job over Stalock?
February 25, 2014, 8:00 am
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Alex Stalock is 8-3-0 as a starter with a 1.61 GAA and .942 SP; Antti Niemi has been pulled from five starts since Oct. 30. (USATSI)

Editor's note: Over the next several days leading up to the Sharks' game on Feb. 27, we'll count down eight questions facing the team as it gets set to start the stretch run.

Question 2 – Will Antti Niemi keep his job as starter over Alex Stalock?

Everyone loves a goalie controversy, right?

In San Jose, there isn’t one, yet. But the way things have been going for starter Antti Niemi and backup Alex Stalock, it’s fair to ask whether Stalock will make a push to unseat Niemi as the No. 1 at some point before or during the postseason.

Head coach Todd McLellan and general manager Doug Wilson have strongly suggested that Niemi is still the undisputed starter, and every indication is that the 30-year-old will continue to get the majority of the starts when the season resumes on Thursday in Philadelphia.

“We like our goaltending. Our goaltending, if I look at it statistically, is Top 5 in the league,” Wilson said, referring to the Sharks’ 2.32 team goals-against average, fourth in the NHL.

“Nemo’s our No. 1. No matter what you do when you get in the playoffs, your best players have to play well. He’s won a Cup, our players believe in him, he works his [butt] off.

“Alex is a great story. Alex has come in and played really well.”

Niemi was the Sharks’ best and most consistent player last season, keeping the team in the playoff race until an identity shift around the trade deadline resulted in an much-needed uptick in scoring. That earned him his first career Vezina Trophy nomination at the end of the season.

He was solid in a playoff run that ended in a seven-game series loss to the Kings, too, and at the start of this year, picked up right where he left off. Niemi was 9-1-1 with a 1.53 GAA and .933 SP in his first 11 starts of 2013-14.

Since then, though, he hasn’t been nearly as effective, and has let in some very stoppable shots over the last three months on a fairly regular basis. He’s still second in the NHL with 29 wins, but since Oct. 30, Niemi has allowed at least three goals exactly half of his starts (18 times in 36 starts) and has been pulled from five games.

Stalock, meanwhile, has been nothing short of outstanding in his first full NHL season. He’s 8-3-0 as a starter with a 1.61 GAA and .942 SP, and although most of his early work came against lesser teams, he recently recorded a 3-2 shootout win in Chicago on Jan. 5, and held the Kings to one goal in a 1-0 Sharks loss on Jan. 27.

Oh, and he also set a new franchise record with a scoreless streak of 178 minutes and 55 seconds, including shutout wins over Florida and Winnipeg in January.

McLellan has hinted that Stalock would get more playing time with Niemi going to Sochi, but Niemi acted as the third stringer there for Finland and didn't play at all, so it’s difficult to guess how the coach will utilize his two goaltenders moving forward. The Sharks have four back-to-back situations remaining in the condensed Olympic-year schedule, so Stalock will certainly get a chance to play.

At the very least, the Minnesota native has given the coaching staff confidence in case Niemi can’t find his game or falters come playoff time.

McLellan said: “We have 23 games left, and if we play well enough, we should be able to make the playoffs. When we make the playoffs, we have to have two goaltenders ready to go and play.

“In looking -- not so much at last year, but going backwards a few other years -- we needed more than one goaltender, either through injury or through performance. We have to make sure they’re both ready to go.”