Anaheim Ducks Put San Jose Sharks Playoff Chances in Jeopardy

MJ KasprzakSenior Writer IIMarch 29, 2012

Antti Niemi played well in Anaheim, but how will he fare on the second night of back-to-back games?
Antti Niemi played well in Anaheim, but how will he fare on the second night of back-to-back games?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Misery loves company.

The Anaheim Ducks were eliminated from the playoffs during Wednesday's game with the San Jose Sharks by virtue of wins by both the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings. But in getting their fifth win of the season over their rivals, they might have pulled the four-time defending Pacific Division champions down with them.

It was the first of six games against their division to end the season for the Sharks. They have typically dominated the division, but are just 8-11 this season. Two of those wins came via a shootout.

The good news is that they are done with Anaheim, and are 7-6 against everyone else. Since they are not competing with the Ducks for a playoff spot, the loss did not hurt them as much as it could have.

But if not for San Jose, Anaheim would be four points below .500. A playoff contender has to win games against such a team.

In some of those games, the Sharks did not come with their best effort. If they fail to make the playoffs, or even get a first-round matchup they cannot overcome, they will look back to those games as the reason the team suffers an inevitable shake-up.

Effort was not the problem Wednesday, as the Sharks blocked more shots on fewer Ducks attempts than Anaheim. But poor execution did them in.

San Jose is a much better faceoff team—ranking second vs. Anaheim's 28th in the NHL—and won six more draws. But with nine fewer hits, four fewer takeaways and four more giveaways, they gave up more possessions than they got.

They also could not solve the Jonas Hiller equation. The Ducks goalie stopped 31 of the 32 shots he faced, including a highlight-reel glove save on a Joe Pavelski one-timer from between the circles. Pavelski also rang a shot off the post in the first.

Antti Niemi did all he could to match him. While he only faced 26 shots (a 27th was wrongly awarded as an empty-net goal when Dan Boyle took the net off while blocking Corey Perry's shot) and allowed one more goal, several were of the highlight variety. The better chances definitely belonged to the home team.

But now Niemi will be fatigued when he undoubtedly plays against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday. Todd McLellan's insistence on playing his starter on consecutive nights (dating back to Evgeni Nabokov in 2010) rates as almost as bad a decision as his recently ended insistence on playing Colin White.

We can put aside the cumulative effect on a goalie come playoff time for a second. No matter what former goalies—competitors who cannot be trusted to judge their play objectively—and broadcasters tell us, the reality is a fatigued starter is almost always a worse option than a backup.

Niemi has not won a game on the second night of a back-to-back since his third game of the season. Since then, he is 0-1-2 while allowing 3.19 goals per 60 minutes and a save percentage of just .897.

Even with that early season win (before fatigue set in), he is 1-1-2 (.500), with a 2.91 GAA and .912 save pct. That is worse than Thomas Greiss (8-7-1, 2.36 and .914) and a substantial drop-off from Nemo's numbers on other nights (.588, 2.39 and .915).

Thursday will represent the third game in four nights for both Nemo and the rest of the Sharks. The Phoenix Coyotes will be playing their first game in that time, and have Shane Doan back in the lineup. A win over San Jose (even in a shootout) allows them to take the final playoff spot from the Sharks.

The good news after that is that San Jose plays the only two teams in the Pacific that have not had their number for the final four games. They are 3-1 vs. Dallas and 2-2 vs. L.A.

Chances are, they will need to earn seven points in the final five games to win the division and have any real chance of making the second round. Six points probably gets them into the playoffs, only to be mowed down by the Vancouver Canucks or St. Louis Blues.