Antti Niemi

Why the Sharks should practice patience with Antti Niemi

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In this instant media age, it’s not surprising that the hockey public can turn on a goalie in a heart beat. Inexperience, bad luck and spotty defensive support are rarely accepted as excuses, even if there’s often more to a scoreboard meltdown than a shaky netminder.

Many NHL coaches are ridiculed for sticking with goalies in those bleaker moments, but let’s not assume that we know more about these individuals than the teams who handle them. The Philadelphia Flyers probably get a little too much heat for their history of goaltending struggles – they have been a consistently competitive franchise for a staggering amount of time, after all – but their recent carousel has been problematic. Was it really fair to pull the plug on Sergei Bobrovsky so quickly in Round 1 after he helped them so much during the season?

The polar opposite example is Roberto Luongo. He struggled against Chicago up until Game 7, but has been outstanding since then. He allowed one goal in that Game 7 OT win, pitched a shutout in Game 1 against Nashville and was beaten twice in last night’s double overtime loss. Maybe he has been upstaged by at times by Corey Crawford and Pekka Rinne, but he rewarded Vancouver’s patience by allowing just three goals in about 11 periods of hockey.

Niemi’s struggles against Los Angeles generates concern

Going into their second round series against the Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks faced (and still face) probing questions about Antti Niemi. It is indeed tough to deny that they should keep an eye on the Finnish sophomore netminder after he was pulled in two of the Sharks’ final four playoff games against the Los Angeles Kings.

Many people probably noted Niemi’s strong second half of the 2010-11 season and wondered if he’s melting down under the pressure, but if you review his game log from last year’s playoffs, it’s clear that Niemi is a feast or famine netminder.

Niemi’s hot-and-cold 2010 Stanley Cup run

During his 11 “good” nights, Niemi earned two shutouts, allowed only one goal three times and allowed two in six other instances. At the same time, he had 11 average-to-bad nights, allowing three goals four times and four or more during seven other starts.

On one hand, this shows that the team in front of him was very good, as he won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks while posting a 16-6 postseason record. That being said, Niemi also showed a pattern of following up a bad performance or two with streaks of red-hot play.

Why the Sharks should ultimately stick with Niemi, barring a total collapse

This indicates that he probably won’t be the type of goalie who carries his team every game – it seems like his only consistently dominant series was actually against San Jose last year – but it also suggests that he can help the Sharks win if they stick with him through the darker moments.

The Sharks have a tendency to bombard their opponents and generate the greatest amount of scoring chances, so they need a goalie who can handle counter-punching offenses. Sometimes they might need to deal with a shaky statistical night (or 11?), but Niemi could have the right kind of mental makeup to win behind this type of team.

Niemi produced a solid Game 1 against Detroit, turning aside 24 out of 25 shots in the Sharks’ OT win. Considering the Red Wings’ firepower, it almost seems inevitable that they’ll eventually “get” to him. The question is: will San Jose’s coaching staff have the patience to let him fight through it?

A patient strategy seemed to work out quite well for last year’s champion Blackhawks, at least.

Larkin will start season with Red Wings

Dylan Larkin
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Dylan Larkin — despite being just 19 years old — will begin the season on the Detroit Red Wings, a team not normally accustomed to having teenagers in the lineup.

Coach Jeff Blashill confirmed the news this morning. Larkin could apparently start on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader.

Larkin, the 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft, had three goals and one assist in five preseason games. A natural center, he’s shown the potential to one day step into the kind of “big-time” role that Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have played for so long in Detroit.

“You have to give our scouts credit,” former coach Mike Babcock told ESPN in May. “We got a great pick where we picked. How high end is he? How soon?”

Related: Coaching change ‘one of the reasons’ Larkin signed with Wings

Preseason stats: Five goalies with good numbers, five goalies with…not

Anders Nilsson
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Yeah, yeah, it’s a small sample size and it’s just the preseason, but here are some goaltending stats anyway.

Five goalies with good numbers

Anders Nilsson, Edmonton — zero goals on 53 shots. His solid play a likely factor in the decision to waive Ben Scrivens, who actually wasn’t that bad in the preseason (4 goals on 56 shots).

Martin Jones, San Jose — three goals on 100 shots. The Sharks are rolling the dice on a couple of cheap goalies. Jones and Alex Stalock have a combined cap hit of just $4.6 million.

Jacob Markstom, Vancouver — three goals on 79 shots. Can he finally get over the NHL hump? If so, he could make it a real competition with Ryan Miller.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus — five goals on 122 shots. The Blue Jackets have scored a ton of goals in the preseason, but there remain questions about their blue line. Bobrovsky has the ability to make a so-so defense look good.

Anton Khudobin, Anaheim — two goals on 67 shots. A good early sign for the Ducks, who have Frederik Andersen in the starting role and want to give young John Gibson more time to develop in the AHL.

Five goalies with bad numbers

Thomas Greiss, Islanders — 14 goals on 94 shots. Has to be a bit of concern in Brooklyn. The Isles got below-average backup play last season from Chad Johnson. They wanted to fix that with the Greiss signing.

Robin Lehner, Buffalo — 11 goals on 95 shots. Tim Murray paid a hefty price to get the 24-year-old out of Ottawa. With the aforementioned Johnson in the backup role, the goaltending story is worth watching.

Jeff Zatkoff, Pittsburgh — 11 goals on 74 shots. Granted, Marc-Andre Fleury and Matthew Murray weren’t particularly sharp either. The Penguins conceded 28 goals in eight games.

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas — 15 goals on 84 shots. For a Stars team that desperately needs better goaltending, that has to be worrying. Antti Niemi wasn’t a whole lot better either, allowing eight goals on 65 shots. Fair question to ask — how many of all those goals were attributable to poor defensive play?

Pekka Rinne, Nashville — 12 goals on 91 shots. Has earned the benefit of the doubt, but thought we’d point it out anyway.