Programming note: Sharks-Ducks coverage kicks off tonight at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – There’s no question who the starting goalie is these days when it comes to the San Jose Sharks. Antti Niemi is tied for the league lead in wins (six), and has a 1.80 goals-against average and .936 save percentage to go along with those half a dozen victories. He’s also signed through 2014-15 for $4 million annually.
But in a shortened season in which San Jose still has eight back-to-back situations remaining, Thomas Greiss will get his playing time. According to Todd McLellan, there’s a “good chance” the 27-year-old German will play against the Ducks on Monday in Anaheim, or at home against the Blackhawks on Tuesday.
The backup role is nothing new to Greiss, who has played in just 39 games in four seasons with San Jose. But, that doesn’t mean he should just accept that he’s the backup. Quite the contrary, said the head coach.
“I think Tommy can be a starter in the league,” McLellan said. “I really believe that he can, if he gets that chance, be a starter and take it and go. Right now, Nemo has played well enough that Tommy is not taking his job away. But when he gets a chance, he’ll take advantage of it.”
Greiss, set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, recorded his first shutout in the NHL in his first start this season, a 24-save effort against Colorado on Jan. 26. After the game, Sharks captain Joe Thornton mentioned that the team enjoys playing hard in front of Greiss, who is a popular guy in the locker room.
“The guys like playing in front of him. He’s a real likeable guy, and he’s a fun guy to be around,” Thornton said at the time.
McLellan can see where the captain is coming from, in that regard.
“Tommy is good in the role that he plays because his teammates like him, he’s a likeable guy, he’s got a great work ethic, and he stays out late in practice,” McLellan said.
“But, I don’t want him to say ‘I’m the backup.’ That’s not the case. Nemo will play well all the time and keep his job, but part of your job, as Thomas Greiss is in, is to push and try and take. When you’re doing that, you’re pushing people along. You’re ready to go when you’re called upon, and you’re pushing the other guy.”
Even if Niemi does falter at some point while Greiss continues to play well, don’t expect Greiss to ever kick up a fuss about his playing time.
“Just go day-by-day, and practice-to-practice and see what happens,” Greiss said. ”Just wait for when [McLellan] tells me [to play], stay sharp, and be ready whenever.”
Sheppard getting his shot
James Sheppard skated on the Sharks’ most effective line against the Predators on Saturday, alongside Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture. His promotion to that line was notable for a few reasons, not the least of which was Sheppard was a healthy scratch for three games from Jan. 26 – 29. He returned for last Thursday’s game against the Oilers.
Clowe was very complimentary of Sheppard after the 2-1 shootout loss to Nashville, and Couture echoed Clowe’s comments on Sunday.
“He gets better every game, and he has been getting better,” Couture said. “He obviously hasn’t played in the NHL for two of three years, so he’s just going to get better. He’ll get more comfortable with the puck, without the puck, going to spots, and getting quicker. He’s a skilled player, so he’s fun to play with.”
Sheppard’s aim is to bring some speed to that line.
“Those two guys are some of the best at protecting the puck, Clowe with his big body and Cooch is just so smart with the puck. It’s going to be tough if you’re one guy trying to score, but if you’re all three together you can be very dangerous,” he said.
Just how long McLellan sticks with that trio is anyone’s guess, but the head coach didn’t rule out keeping them together against Anaheim.
“I thought Shep did some good things up on that line,” McLellan said. “Clowe is a big body, Cooch moves the puck around, and we need a skater there with them. We need somebody that can create some speed and energy. If Shep can do that, then he’s the right guy. If he isn’t, we’ll find the right people.”
Sheppard’s return to the NHL from a nearly three-year absence due to a serious knee injury has been well documented, and its not lost on his teammates, after he continued his rehab in San Jose for most of last season.
“I’m sure there were times during his injury where he doubted [he would play again],” Couture said. “It’s good to see him back. He was around us last year and you could see how badly he wanted to play. It’s good to see him get a chance.”
The Sharks loaned defenseman Nick Petrecki to Worcester, now that Jason Demers has returned and the team has seven healthy defensemen. Petrecki played in one game, skating for nearly 12 minutes on Jan. 29 against Anaheim.
Rookie Matt Irwin was scratched against Nashville for the first time this season, making Petrecki’s presence unnecessary for the time being. Brent Burns was the only Sharks player to skate on Sunday, as the rest of the team worked out off of the ice before a charter to Anaheim.