San Jose Sharks' Antti Niemi Getting His Season Turned Around?

Patrick Goulding IIAnalyst IDecember 15, 2010

Antti Niemi has had a resurgent streak of late, despite some momentary lapses.
Antti Niemi has had a resurgent streak of late, despite some momentary lapses.

Apparently San Jose Sharks' goaltender Antti Niemi missed the Chicago Blackhawks more than anyone understood.

After beating them in OT 2-1 last Saturday, his second victorious effort against his former team in as many weeks, Niemi has started each of the next two games for the Sharks—posting strong performances in all three straight outings.

This is the first time Niemi has strung back-to-back strong outings together this season, let alone three in a row. Despite looking awful in the shoot-out against Dallas and surrendering two late goals against Nashville, Niemi showed he is capable of keeping the Sharks in games.

At least for the time being, his play has propelled him ahead of fellow offseason acquisition Antero Niittymaki—after serving as a clear backup for much of the first quarter of the season.

It seems Niemi's strong play in two emotional matchups against the Blackhawks have helped buoy his confidence and the confidence of the Sharks as a team when it comes to rising up in big situations. Furthermore, if Niemi can settle down after a wildly inconsistent start to the year, perhaps the Sharks can do the same, and start to gain serious ground in a Western Conference race with no clear front-runner.

Todd McLellan has taken his fair share of criticism over the past two seasons, but the recent choices he has made may just have infused new and much-needed vivacity into what once was a struggling Sharks team.

McLellan's decision to start Niemi the day before Thanksgiving now looms very large as it has restored a heightened level of confidence in both Niemi and the team. Furthermore, his use of early timeouts against Detroit and Philadelphia on the recent road trip proved sage indeed, as the Sharks managed to orchestrate come-from-behind victories in each of those games.

Niemi's improved play comes at a perfect time for the Sharks, as it coincides with a decline to the very impressive start Niittymaki was off to. In his last three games, Niittymaki has allowed 12 goals.

The Sharks won two of three, but one cannot count on such an outcome with regularity when allowing four goals per game. A rejuvenated Niemi could be the answer to helping the Sharks mount the hot streak they need to gain ground in the Western Conference.

However, expect the goaltending pecking order to remain cyclical in San Jose. Niemi played just 39 games in the regular season last year, after serving as a backup to Christobal Huet for much of the first half of the year. Seeing how Niemi responds to the rigors of a full NHL schedule will be a key factor in how well the Sharks ultimately fair.

Nonetheless, both Niemi and Niittymaki have shown the ability to sustain good play for extended periods thus far this season, meaning the Sharks have the option of riding the hot hand—something team brass likely had in mind when they signed Niemi. If the two goaltenders can continue to pick one another up when the other falters as the season progresses, the Sharks could be in for a deep playoff run.

Keep the faith!