San Jose Sharks: Why Antti Niemi's Next Start Could Be Make or Break

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San Jose Sharks: Why Antti Niemi's Next Start Could Be Make or Break
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Antti Niemi posted an impressive performance against his former team, but will this upturn last?

The San Jose Sharks faced a critical test in the young 2010-2011 season Wednesday night, and to the joy—and perhaps shock—of many fans, they passed with great aplomb.

The opening game of the 2010-2011 season series with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks was already huge for the Sharks for a number of reasons, but the progression of the game would eventually present the Sharks with a major test of character.

After taking a 3-1 lead into the second intermission, the Sharks failed to capitalize on a key opportunity to extend their lead to three goals on a late power play that spanned the intermission. Shortly after that, Chicago scored to draw within a goal with still more than 15 minutes remaining.

Having seen a pair of two-goal third period leads evaporate on their most recent road trip, the Sharks could well have been overcome with a sense of fate and déjà vu. Instead, they responded emphatically, as if to prove the road losses had been a learning experience.

The Sharks thwarted the comeback attempt by scoring their fourth goal, this one from Patrick Marleau on the power play at 13:47. They would also add an empty-netter from Patrick Marleau in the closing seconds to win 5-2. The win and the points are the most important element of the outcome of course, but the nature of the Sharks' response to in-game adversity should not be overlooked—particularly when one considers their opponent was the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Sharks exercised their demons against the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs last year, but they looked absolutely baffled by the Blackhawks. As radio announcers Dan Rusanowsky and Jamie Baker aptly pointed out, the Blackhawks have supplanted the Red Wings as the Sharks' arch-nemesis after last spring. This win takes on potentially greater importance in that light.

Another critical aspect with respect to the posture of the team moving forward from this win was the play of goaltender Antti Niemi. Head coach Todd McLellan made his contribution to the game's subplots by starting the heretofore beleaguered netminder rather than Antero Niittymaki.

Niemi fed off the emotion of facing the team with whom he had months earlier won the Stanley Cup and parlayed that into a solid performance with 30 saves on 32 shots. Those numbers are more than respectable on their own and were good enough to propel Nimei to the first star honor for the game. But viewed in contrast to the paltry .878 save percentage and 3.91 goals-against average Niemi had posted in route to a 2-4 record to date, they are downright amazing.

The critical question remains: Was this performance simply an anomaly borne out of a temporary surge of emotion and personal pride, or could this boost have been the turning point Niemi has been seeking to get his season back on track? His performance in his very next game should go far toward answering this question. Can Niemi ride this high and continue to post these impressive numbers, or did this game drain his tank?

If Niemi can perpetuate this personal momentum and use it to elevate his overall numbers to the realm seen from Niittymaki thus far, it could buy the Sharks ample time to weigh all options for roster tweaks leading up to the trading deadline. For the time being at least, it seems as though McLellan may have his hands full deciding how to best split time in the Sharks net.

It may be a problem, but it is a nice problem to have—if it lasts.

Keep the Faith!

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