Kurz on Niemi: 'You don't have time to wait for him to get ready'
When asked how many games he’d like to play this year, Antti Niemi simply replied, “a lot.” (USA TODAY IMAGES)
SAN JOSE – It’s a virtual certainty that goalie Antti Niemi will lead the Sharks onto the ice for their season opener in Calgary on Sunday. Niemi is less than two years removed from helping the Sharks reach the Western Conference finals in 2011, and it’s been less than three years since he raised the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.
But, the 2011-12 campaign was a step backwards. Although Niemi finished with decent numbers (34-22-9, 2.42 GAA, .915 SP), he was unable to find the consistency down the stretch that allowed him to succeed in those aforementioned seasons.
“I have to get better at staying at my better level,” the 29-year-old Niemi said on Wednesday at Sharks Ice. “A season like this, there shouldn’t be any stretch where I’m not playing well. I think last year on that long road trip, I had some troubles in February. I especially remember that Tampa game (a 6-5 shootout loss in which he made just 19 saves on 24 shots).
“We had a tough road trip, and so did I. I have to be at my best every night.”
When the Sharks hit the road for that now infamous nine-game trip last February, they sat in first place in the division (and third in the Western Conference) with a 30-16-6 mark. The team’s goals-against average was fifth in the NHL (2.29), and Niemi had a solid 23-12-5 record with a 2.35 GAA and .917 SP.
That’s when the wheels began to come off.
The Sharks managed just a 2-6-1 record on the 17-day trek across North America, and struggled just to make the postseason. There were a number of reasons why the team stalled, and Niemi’s play was one of them. The goaltender was just 1-3-1 on the trip with a 3.94 GAA and .859 SP, and at one point was pulled in the first period in two of three games he started.
Even when the Sharks returned home at the end of the month, the team and its starting goaltender couldn’t find a groove. The result was a predictable ouster in the first round to St. Louis.
Niemi found work during the lockout in Finland, suiting up for 10 games in the SM-liiga for Lahti Pelicans, where he played from 2005-08. It was important to see some pucks in a real competition with the NHL lockout dragging into February, he said.
“It was just a great experience going back to my old team for a month and get 10 games, lots of games. I think it was great for me to get used to the game speed, even if it’s a different league.”
Now, the pressure will be on from the start to perform at a high level. That’s true for Niemi, as well as every other goaltender around the league, as coaches will be desperate for quick starts in a shortened season.
Where in a full season coaches might have the luxury of waiting for a goalie to find his game, that simply can't be done in a 48-game slate.
“I think you’ll see a lot of teams go with the hot hand, but find moments where they can rest that hot hand. I think you’ll also see teams, if that hot hand doesn’t exist quickly, try and find it elsewhere if they can, whether it’s the backup or whoever it might be,” McLellan said. “You just don’t have enough time to play a goaltender into his comfort zone. Therefore, this camp is important for each of them, and both of them have to be prepared and ready to go.”
Backup Thomas Greiss also had a chance to compete in his home country during the lockout, playing in nine games for the Hannover Scorpions in Germany. If Niemi falters, McLellan is confident in Greiss, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“Early in the year I equate goaltending to pitching in baseball. It’s real important. It would be nice if goaltender had a little more time, but I feel comfortable about both of ours because they had been playing over in Europe, so got to experience it a little bit,” McLellan said.
Like Niemi, Greiss was glad to find work with the NHL’s doors locked shut.
“It was fun, I got to play a bunch of games [with] a lot of the players I used to play with, or used to play against, so it was a fun experience. It was good just to play again,” Greiss said. “I think it was very good, because practice and games is two totally different things. Here, scrimmaging is still different than real games and real competition, so it was good.”
Niemi makes no secret that he prefers to get as much action as possible. When asked how many games he’d like to play this year, he simply replied, “a lot.”
Just how many that is could depend on his performance early this season, starting on Sunday.