San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi named NHL first star of the week, Nemo quietly putting together an impressive stretch run

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Monday, February 21, 2011 - Save & Share - 2 Comments

San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi named NHL first star of the week

San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi making critical adjustments in goal
NIEMI IN 2011: 12-6-1, 1.95GAA, .936SV%, 4SO

San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi continues to pick up wins and accolades in 2011. After collecting his third shutout of the month with a 25-save performance against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night, Niemi was named as the NHL’s first star of the week this afternoon. The Vantaa, Finland native registered a 3-0 record, 0.98GAA, and .963SV% stopping 78 of 81 total shots to help the Sharks move into the top half of Western Conference playoff contenders for the first time this season.

“We have been playing really, really well lately,” Niemi said after his third shutout of the month against Colorado. “Especially our battle level, and how tight we are in front of our own net.” The 6-foot-2, 210-pound netminder was 4-0 in an Olympic shortened February for the Chicago Blackhawks last season. After becoming the #1 goaltender with 10 weeks remaining in the season, he became nearly unsolveable in the playoffs facing two of the top three offenses in the Western Conference; Vancouver and San Jose. The Sharks are hoping a scortching second half is a trend for Niemi. Asked if he had caught fire winning 8 of his last 10, Niemi calmly replied, “maybe a little bit.” He added that he thought his game had grown since a Stanley Cup winning 2009-10 campaign. “I feel I am more experienced now, I feel I am more patient.”

In the 13 seasons the Sharks have been awarding player of the month honors, Antti Niemi became only the 6th goaltender to be given the honor in January. It was a recogniton not that far removed from a tumultous 3-5-1 record, 5.54GAA and .833SV% during his first two months as a San Jose Shark. Head coach Todd McLellan had a plan for Antti. He kept him in the rotation, and spread the blame for uneven play across the board instead of singling out Niemi. The move paid off. After he gave up 5 or more goals 4 times in his first 13 games, Niemi has allowed 2 or fewer goals in 13 of his last 20. In that span he has registered a 12-6-1 record, helped the Sharks snap a season long 6 game losing streak, and anchored the crease while the rudderless Sharks found a direction pointed towards the postseason.

“I think when you get wins and you are playing a lot, you get confidence,” Niemi said of starting 15 straight with an injury to Antero Niittymaki. “I think confidence is the main thing here, and then when you get lots of games it is good as well.”

At 6-foot-2, 210-pounds Niemi plays a more traditional blocking style down low than former franchise goalie Evgeni Nabokov. While Nabokov would play more on his feet, use anticipation and aggressiveness to stymie shooters, Niemi instead prefers to wall off the lower portion of the net and use his reflexes to pick off shots up high. His confidence and the complete team buy-in of the system in front of him have helped Niemi’s turnaround, but he has also shown incremental improvement throughout the season. Part of that is gaining familiarity with his teammates, but Niemi has also improved rebound control, glove positioning (as pointed to by HNIC), and he has erased the sliver of room beneath his pads when he moves side-to-side.

At one point, several hockey pundits labeled Niemi and the Sharks goaltending as a whole as average. That may have taken into account size and raw talent, but Niemi’s ability to make adjustments makes him more than that as he showed last year in the opening round of the playoffs. “After three games against Nashville, I asked him to play furthur out,” Chicago Blackhawks goalie coach Stephane Waite told Goalie’s World Magazine last summer. “The Predator’s weren’t shooting to score but rather to play the rebound.” Stephane, brother of one-time San Jose Sharks goaltender Jimmy Waite, noted that the adjustment greatly reduced the number of rebound opportunities for the Predators. Niemi earned a 3-0 shutout in his next game.

The adjustments continued for Antti in the second round against the Vancouver Canucks. As noted in a scouting report on this blog, the Canucks were on a mission to score goals up high. “I asked him to play higher, but also more aggressive with his body,” Stephane Waite said. “He really filled more net and the Vancouver players began to miss the net quite often. That is a sign there isn’t much to shoot at.” The Sharks came at Niemi with a similar gameplan, and similar results.

This season Niemi has continued to make adjustments as the team tightened around him. The additions of Kyle Wellwood and Ben Eager up front, and Ian White on the blueline, add a depth of skill that is a shade similar to his former club in Chicago. He may have to carry the bulk of the workload while backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki recovers from an undisclosed injury, a seperate injury than the one he suffered during a pre-game skate in Vancouver. Whether the Sharks remain with first year pro and former UMass Lowell goaltender Carter Hutton, or whether GM Doug Wilson feels the need to bring in an additional veteran backup as insurance for an extended Niittymaki injury, Niemi will continue quietly making adjustments and putting together another solid stretch run.

Not bad for a former Zamboni driver.

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2 Responses to “San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi named NHL first star of the week, Nemo quietly putting together an impressive stretch run”

Pingback from Game Day Notes: vs. San Jose « On the Wings
Time February 22, 2011 at 10:32 AM

[...] Their surge to the top four in the West, completed last week, was in large part due to Antti Niemi posting a 9.98GAA and .963 save percentage through three games, including a 4-0 shutout of Colorado [...]

Pingback from San Jose Sharks ink goaltender Antti Niemi to 4-year, $15.2 million contract extension | SHARKSPAGE
Time March 1, 2011 at 12:35 PM

[...] in Niemi’s playoff run last season that bode well for his future in San Jose. As noted in this post, Niemi continued to make adjustments round to round, and he flat stymied two of the best offenses [...]