San Jose head coach Todd McLellan’s decision to go with goaltender Antti Niemi for game 6 is a critical one for series

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Monday, April 25, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi will start game 6 of the WCQF in Los Angeles

27 years old, glove: left, 6-foot-2, 210-pounds

2009-2010 PLAYOFFS: 22GP, 16-6, .910SV%, 2.63GAA, 2SO
2010-2011 REGULAR SEASON: 60GP, 35-18-6, .920SV%, 2.38GAA, 6SO
2010-2011 PLAYOFFS: 5GP, 2-2, .855SV%, 4.30GAA, 0SO

Goaltender Antti Niemi will get the call for the San Jose Sharks in game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in Los Angeles Monday night. After giving up 3 goals on the first 4 shots Saturday night in San Jose, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said that his team believes in last year’s Stanley Cup winning netminder.

“(Pride) is a part of it,” McLellan said about the decision to go with Niemi today after practice. “There is a real strong belief in Nemo… I truely believe that guys want to play for this guy. It is a powerful thing in a locker room. As much as we are showing confidence in the goaltender in putting him back in, we also believe the 18 skaters will respond appropriately.”

A number of teams have already dealt with goaltending issues this postseason. Boston’s early struggles had fans calling for Tuukka Rask over Tim Thomas. The team kept faith in Thomas and he responded with three straight wins. Philadelphia did not hesitate to make the switch from rookie Sergei Bobrovsky after pulling him in game 2, using Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. Vancouver went with Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo in game 6, only to have their seldom used but talented backup get injured on a penalty shot. Despite pulling Antti Niemi twice in the last 3 games McLellan is sticking with his starting netminder, one of the bedrock players that helped the team engineer a remarkable in-season turnaround.

The Sharks collectively had a gut check moment of their own at the start of 2011. After an up and down start to the regular season, a 4-game winning streak before the Christmas break created the feeling San Jose was starting to turn its fortunes around. That was followed promptly with a pair of demoralizing losses. Then the Sharks started the 2011 calender year with a 6-game losing streak, in addition to 6 consecutive losses at home. It was the longest losing streak in 15 years.

Instead of finger pointing or second guessing, the team bought into Todd McLellan’s process even more while leaning heavily on Antti Niemi. The Finnish netminder responded with 34 straight starts in goal, second only to Evgeni Nabokov, while registering a 26-4-4 record (.927 SV%, 2.05GAA in that span). Then came the post-season and the Sharks second all-California playoff series in three years. After a tight game 1 against Los Angeles where Niemi stopped 33 of 35 shots for an overtime win, both goaltender and team started to veer off from the course they had established in the regular season.

As a team, mistakes by San Jose created the bulk of Los Angeles scoring opportunities in game 2. Niemi struggled with basics in game 3, and was pulled after 4 goals against in 41+ minutes. He responded with a workmanlike effort 35-save performance in game 4. Early turnovers and mistakes were costly in game 5, but Niemi did not bail the team out like he did repeatedly over the second half of the regular season. Instead the Sharks got on their horse and tried a furious comeback attempt with waves of sustained offensive pressure in front of Antero Niiittymaki.

“I don’t think we did a lot to help him,” McLellan said after Easter practice Sunday. “Last year and this year, any time he has had a bad game he has come back. He hasn’t had 2 in a row, or 2 in a 5-game span in a long time. He will need to polish it up like the rest of us do.”

Niemi will need a cleaner breakout from the defense, better management of the puck, and more forward support. High percentage clears off the glass in their own zone, and dump ins down low will be the order of the day. High turnovers, and beating players 1- on-1 or 1-on-2 will not. Either way, McLellan expects Niemi to bring the same confidence and performance he has game-after-game over the last 2 and a half months. “The last thing we are going to do is to start tinkering with that at this point.”

Sunday Niemi said he will focus on challenging the shooters more when they have the puck, staying on top of the crease instead of playing deep. Otherwise putting game 3 and game 5 out of his mind will be automatic. “Nemo came in and played real well down the stretch. he has been our guy the last couple of months. We feel confident in him,” Dany Heatley said. “When Nitty has gone in, he has done a great job for us. We have confidence in both guys.”

Last year in the playoffs for Chicago, when Niemi was hot he had shooters for Nashville and Vancouver second guessing themselves. Scoring down low was off the table, and forwards were making extra dekes and extra passes trying to set up shots high. It gave more time for the Chicago defense to close off scoring chances, and force plays to the perimeter. San Jose had more of a net front presence than Vancouver or Nashville, but with only 7 goals to work with offensively, they were swept in 4 games.

According to his former goaltending coach in Chicago Stephane Waite, Niemi made similar adjustments in the first round last year coming out of the net more and using his stick. “The Predators weren’t shooting to score, but rather to play the rebound,” Waite told Goalie’s World Magazine. “He did a better job preventing rebounds in that series.” In the second round Niemi was more patient against Vancouver, offering less shooting area up high, similar to the style he used against San Jose.

For game 6 against Los Angeles, Niemi almost has to turn off his brain and use what has worked for him over the last 2 months of the season. Sometimes thinking about making changes while you are making them results in the puck finding the back of the net. Building on the success he had last year after being pulled against Vancouver, and on earning a win in game 4 after being pulled a game earlier, Niemi expressed confidence in himself and in his preperation. “It is always a new time when you have to come back,” Niemi said. “It takes careful preperation, just getting ready and not thinking about it too much.”

The Sharks can take a lot off of Niemi’s mind, and off his shoulders, by trying to crack Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick on home ice. After surrendering 6 goals against in back-to-back games, including a failure to hold a 4-goal lead, the Kings doubled down on their top goaltender for game 5 and it paid off. Quick tied a franchise playoff record with 51 saves. Facing elimination, the pressure on a team to come from behind can mount exponentially. Against Los Angeles it would take them out of their defense-first game plan and force them to open things up offensively.

Los Angeles Kings head coach Terry Murray downplayed the quality of a number of San Jose shots and scoring chances in game 5, but the reality was that Quick was forced to make diving stops outside of the blue paint at least 8-10 times. There were a half dozen hard collisions in net with San Jose forwards, and nearly a dozen scrums out in front of his goal. San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said he wanted more. Logan Couture alone hit the post on a point blank forehand from 10 feet out, and failed to convert a 3rd period turnover while alone in front a second time. The Kings can not count on those type of breaks going their way the remainder of the series.

After game 4, Joe Thornton noted Jonathan Quick’s inclination to sprawl out in order to make saves. The Sharks captain noted that they had to try to lift pucks over him. One game earlier, San Jose had success with dekes and misdirection, especially on the power play. That forced the aggressive Quick to overplay pucks and get out of position, a historical problem for the netminder dating back to college and the AHL. With the Sharks intention to get more bodies and more traffic in front on Monday night, one thing from the scouting report is clear: San Jose forwards have to be quicker to loose pucks in front of the net than Quick is. Over and over on Saturday night Quick was able to freeze loose pucks or clear them out of harms way with his stick. Evidence of his reaction time are also evident with his glove. He is often positioned to make a glove save well before a shot is made. A deke or a hesitation play could help the Sharks be successful on road ice for the third straight game in the 2010-11 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

[Update] Kings Coach Terry Murray will stick with same lineup for Game 6 – Los Angeles Times.

[Update2] Niittymaki on his role tonight as back-up: ‘I don’t expect to jump in there and start in the playoffs’ – David Pollak’s Working the Corners blog.

[Update3] Weekend wrap: Nabokov’s contract, Richards’ options, Kings’ goalies – Pierre LeBrun for

Some observers wondered if the Kings would start rookie Jonathan Bernier for Saturday night’s game against the Sharks, but truth is they gave it very little thought. From the Kings’ perspective, I think the concern is if Jonathan Quick would suffer any emotional damage if San Jose knocked out L.A. with him on the bench. My HNIC colleague Ron MacLean made a good point during our Hot Stove segment Saturday night when he pointed to Carey Price being pulled out of the Philadelphia series a few years ago and how that affected him the following season.

Having said that, Quick needs to expect a serious push next season from Bernier. The feeling in and around the Kings is, while Quick has been very good for them the past two seasons, Bernier is also a great goalie in the making and he’ll get more of a shot next season.

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