The San Jose Sharkshave rebounded from a weak start to the 2010-2011 season. With strong scoring, a punishing power play, improved defense and reliable goaltending, they have climbed back into the mix of the Pacific Division.
However, one critical issue still looms large as the Sharks approach the end of the first quarter of the season.
Antero Niittymaki has clearly assumed the role of No. 1 goaltender ahead of larger-name offseason acquisition Antti Niemi. Niittymaki's play has been reliable and impressive thus far in 2010, ranking him near the top of the NHL in most statistical categories.
But Niittymaki cannot do it alone.
Antti Niemi has not seen any ice time since an absolutely dismal performance against the Calgary Flames, lasting less than nine minutes and allowing three goals on the only five shots he faced.
Niittymaki has been a rock in net since relieving Niemi in that game.
No coincidence that the Sharks' revival has accompanied this change in net.
The Sharks have been able to get by without Niemi to this point, thanks to a sparse playing schedule, allowing Niittymaki to play every game while remaining rested. But as the schedule ramps up and becomes more of a typical every-other-day flow, the Sharks will need to spell Niittymaki to keep him from succumbing to fatigue.
Stanley Cup winning goaltenders rarely start more than 60 games a season, meaning the Sharks will need to identify a steady backup in net if they want Niittymaki to remain fresh for the postseason.
The coaching decisions to date reflect a reticence in letting Niemi see substantial playing time. They may not distrust the former Chicago Blackhawk, but it is clear they prefer Niittymaki whenever possible.
And for good reason.
However, ignoring a problem will not make it go away. If the Sharks want a serious chance at ending the Stanley Cup drought in Silicon Valley, they need to identify a second goaltender to give Niittymaki the rest he needs, while still giving the team a chance to win the games he doesn't start.
The Sharks' schedule grows arduous from this point on, meaning this decision should be close at hand.
Whether they go with Niemi, reach back to the SEL for Thomas Greiss, or find an answer elsewhere, the Sharks need to identify the compliment to Niittymaki soon.
The status quo will not suffice much longer.
Keep the Faith!