Even before training camp began last fall, the Sharks had their goaltending story -- and they've stuck to it.

We have two strong goaltenders in Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki. Both are No. 1 goalies. One is not above the other.

But if you have been paying attention to playing time, it sure looks like a pecking order has been established between the two natives of Finland. While a recent groin injury to Niittymaki obviously played a role, Niemi has started in 13 of the Sharks' past 16 games.

And San Jose coach Todd McLellan is willing to acknowledge the obvious about his goaltending situation. Well, sort of.

"Do we have a No. 1 goalie?" McLellan asked rhetorically. "Yeah, we do. Obviously, Nemo is playing well right now. We have a No. 1, but I put quotation marks around it. Nitty has been hurt, and he would have played before the All-Star break if he had been healthy."

Good luck, though, getting the soft-spoken Niemi to agree he has become the Sharks' first option in goal.

"I'm trying not to think about that at all," he said. "I'm just trying to focus on the games when they tell me to play and the practices when I'm not."

When the Sharks were stuck in that six-game losing streak in early January, something else was lost -- the fact that Niemi was finding a groove. His overall numbers (13-13-3, .912 save percentage, 2.69 goals-against average) might be so-so. But his January save percentage was .934 with a 1.99 goals-against average.

Something that doesn't show up in the statistics, teammates say, is that Niemi is playing with more confidence.

"During that losing streak, especially at the end, he was just phenomenal," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "We just weren't giving him any goal support. Now we are. I always think that you're going to go as far as the goalie is going to take you."

For now, it appears that goalie is Niemi.

The Sharks (25-19-6) emerged from their slump with a 4-0-1 run before the break. But they still find themselves in what amounts to a 32-game sprint to reach the postseason.