CHICAGO – He’s been the Sharks’ most consistent player since the start of the season more than four weeks ago, and arguably their best.
Goaltender Antti Niemi has put up some stellar numbers through the first third of the schedule. Only five goaltenders have more wins than Niemi’s seven. His 1.86 goals-against average is eighth in the NHL, as is his .933 save percentage. He’s confident, appears to be in better physical shape, and has given the Sharks a chance to win almost every game he’s appeared in despite the team’s recent struggles to put the puck in the net.
The 29-year-old Niemi allowed just one goal on 26 shots in St. Louis on Tuesday, helping the Sharks end their seven-game losing streak with a 2-1 win. When asked about his athletic condition as compared to last season, Niemi said: “My legs feel great. I think my movement is better than it’s been.”
Niemi finished with a respectable 2.42 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 68 games last season, but was as inconsistent as the rest of the Sharks team in the second half. During one stretch in February, when the Sharks’ downward spiral began, Niemi allowed at least three goals in seven of nine games.
Does head coach Todd McLellan see a stronger goaltender now, than the one from 12 months ago?
“I do, and I think his numbers speak to that,” McLellan said. “He’s got a little more stamina, his legs look stronger, and he just looks more confident in net and more calm in the net.”
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It wasn’t an ideal beginning for Niemi’s first season as the undisputed starter for an NHL team.
After leading the Sharks to the Western Conference Finals in 2011, there was no question who the starting goaltender was the following fall. The problem was, Niemi had to undergo surgery to remove a cyst from his leg in September. He missed all of training camp and the first three games of the regular season while recovering.
“When you don’t start and you don’t have your legs underneath you, it’s hard to catch up,” McLellan said.
Sharks assistant general manager and goaltending coach Wayne Thomas revealed that Niemi was also battling a knee injury last season.
“If your knee is bothering you, that’s tough to do,” said Thomas. “It was, last year, and he’s healthy now, and I think he’s showing where he wanted to be last year, but couldn’t be.”
During the lockout, Niemi journeyed back to his home country of Finland, playing in 10 games for the Lahti Pelicans of the SM-liiga.
He left that team in December, but brought a souvenir back with him to the Bay Area. Jarmo Liimatainen, who was Niemi’s coach when the goaltender was a teenager, came with Niemi to help train him for a month while the NHL lockout dragged on. Niemi, of course, was not allowed to work with the Sharks’ coaching staff during the labor battle.
“The lockout was good for doing stuff you couldn’t focus on much during the season, when you’ve got to play every other day,” Niemi said. “I think it was good for me.”
Liimatainen helped Niemi build up his leg strength.
“Just doing lots of skating with no pucks, and just movement on the ice,” Niemi said.
Thomas, a former goalie for the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Rangers, said that has been a key to Niemi’s early success.
“Leg power really helps as far as your movement and recovery, and he has that,” Thomas said. “He’s a really good mover in the down position, and the butterfly position.”
Niemi has allowed more than two goals in a game just twice in his last eight starts – both against Chicago. The Sharks and Blackhawks will rematch on Friday at the United Center, where Niemi helped the Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup in 2010.
Adam Burish was also on that championship team, and sees the same confident goalie now that he did when Niemi was so superior for the Blackhawks three years ago.
“When we were on the Cup run in Chicago, and he knows he’s the man and it’s his net, he knows he’s arguably one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.” Burish said. “When he has that confidence, he’s a lot of nights almost unbeatable.”
Burish continued: “It’s almost like when he puts his mask on, he becomes this confident goalie that convinces himself, ‘I’m not going to get beat tonight.’ Pretty much all this season, he hasn’t gotten beat.”
While the Sharks try to find the offense that led to them blitzing through the competition in the first five games of the season, they’ll hope Niemi can remain healthy and continue to play with that confidence, composure and skill.
“I think he’s given us a chance to win every night, which is a goalie’s job,” Thomas said.