Antti Niemi Continues to Struggle but Respectable in San Jose Sharks Loss

David BarclayCorrespondent IFebruary 19, 2012

SAN JOSE, CA - FEBRUARY 08:  Goaltender Antti Niemi #31 of the San Jose Sharks can't stop the third goal from going in the net off the stick of Olli Jokinen #13 of the Calgary Flames (not pictured) at HP Pavilion at San Jose on February 8, 2012 in San Jose, California. The Flames won the game 4-3. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This time last year, San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was the teams workhorse. He proved to be a continued hidden gem of the cage in the NHL, powering out victories in 20 games in 21 starts.

This season has been a little different.

Sure, Niemi wowed and amazed me as he swept the Sharks and carried the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. But I have always ranked Niemi as a high C to solid B level goaltender who's been over-validated due to a extremely successful Cinderella run.

His season this year has been full of stellar performances, but again has left lots of room for questioning and whether he can be the man to finally bring the Cup to San Jose.

The Sharks sacrificed a load of offense in the off season to focus on something that has traditionally been a club problem, defense. The Sharks defensive core is probably one of the most intimidating in the league, but that hasn't stopped Niemi from single-handedly losing several games for the Sharks this season. After Niemi's performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan had finally seen enough and began to voice his opinions.

"He wasn't any good," McLellan said. "I protect him a lot and I talk about the team, but he has to be better. He flat out has to be better."

Niemi watched the Sharks loss to the Carolina Hurricanes from the bench, and had an opportunity to redeem himself in a match against the sizzling Detroit Red Wings, who had won 22 straight at home entering this mornings game.

Niemi wasn't stellar by any means with three goals allowed on 28 shots, but his performance in net today left much more room for hope as the post season looms.

For Sharks fans, no game (outside of the playoffs, of course) is more important than a game against the Red Wings, one of the clubs top rivals since its inception.

But the question I feel people are failing to ask, is more important than why Niemi's play as been sub-par as of late, but why has it been like this?

We all know that Niemi has been struggling with groin injuries this season, and I have begun to wonder if Niemi is trying to speed up his recovery so he can keep playing. Niemi is the type of goalie who can stop the puck from all angles whenever he sees it. He developed the reputation of a real hybrid goaltender who has the skills to cover the net from all angles. An agitated groin injury could really effect his ability to move in the paint and might be the reasoning behind his mediocre play lately. It might be something the Sharks medical staff should pry at.

Regardless, as the season comes to an end, and the post season looms, Niemi needs to build on performances like the one he had against the Red Wings on Sunday.

And a little defensive support is never a bad thing either.


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