A Rock in a Hard Place

Updated: May 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm by Braden Hill

The Chicago Tribune asked Antti Niemi about his experiences in last yearʼs Stanley Cup playoffs and what that brought him this year. His response was “Iʼm way more confident, and I donʼt stress about games so much”. His performance gave him a 2.30 GAA and .910 SV% last year to lead the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup in Philadelphia. The one thing in that run that Niemi did not have to do– face a team in a Game 7. He also did not have to defeat a team with the momentum of winning their last three games. He also never had to face the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings, who were ousted by the just OK Evgeni Nabokov.

In the last three games of the Western Conference SemiFinals, the Red Wings shot 106 times in the direction of Niemi while he managed 96 of those shots successfully, giving up nine as one goal came as an empty netter. His impressive goaltending coupled with Game 6 & 7 performances support his earlier statements regarding confidence. Niemi was solid as a rock and more in front of his hometown crowd and essentially stole a game to lead the Sharks back to the Western Conference Finals.

The Red Wings continued to deploy their strategy in Game 7 – peppering Niemi from all angles. Only two Red Wings, Brad Stuart and Jiri Hudler, failed to get a shot on Niemi in Game 6. Their attempts to rattle Niemi became clear when they registered an overwhelming amount of shots from the neutral zone in all periods. Not only did this strategy open up more opportunities to score, the Wings used their puck possession system to prevent shots on Jimmy Howard.

If the Shark next opponents, the Vancouver Canucks, can figure this out soon enough they may be able to win. However, the Canucks have failed to show the same dominance as they had during the regular season by needing 13 of a possible 14 games just to make it where they are now.

Nevertheless, some team assistance could help the cause too. The Sharks can get in front of Robero Luongo or continue to crash the net like they did to Jimmy Howard, generating secondary scoring chances.  To win, the Sharks just need to grab a lead, as they have shown in the past. “When we got up 1-0, with the way heʼs (Niemi) been playing, we thought maybe he could steal this game” said captain Joe Thornton about Niemi.

This next series may prove to be a bit more of a challenge as Nemo sports a sub-par 1-2-1 record with a 3.64 GAA and .896 SV% over four starts against the Canucks. However, the Canucks dominance has not transitioned over from the regular season so the Sharks could very well pull a win out.

With a more confident Niemi between the pipes, the team certainly has a good chance and will do everything they can to win in front of them.

Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks