The question comes at almost every stop on the road, and it probably will surface again Friday as the Sharks prepare to face the Calgary Flames. Somebody will ask Todd McLellan if Antti Niemi is the same goaltender right now who frustrated the Sharks last spring when the Chicago Blackhawks swept San Jose out of the Western Conference finals. "Very much so," the coach said in Detroit this week. "A calm confidence. The ability to make the second save. Not a lot of weak ones going by him. Good all over." Implied in that question, of course, is the fact that Niemi -- who is likely to be in the nets for an 18th consecutive game Friday night -- did not appear to be that same goalie as recently as six weeks ago. The improvement isn't a matter of Niemi simply ratcheting up his game. It's more about meshing his play with that of his teammates, who in turn have ratcheted up theirs. "It's also that people are playing better in front of him," McLellan added. "Not offensively, but defensively from a lot of players that maybe didn't quite have it at the beginning of the year." Niemi has positioned himself to be the Sharks' workhorse for any playoff run, but consider his statistics on Jan. 15 before this hot streak began: His record was 9-13-2, his saves percentage was .907, and he was allowing 2.85 goals per game. Just as the team appears to have turned around its season, so has Niemi. His record is now 22-15-3, he is stopping pucks at a .919 rate, and that goals-against average is down to 2.43. The team's play and his, of course, are intertwined. "I think any goalie in this league, if you give teams the opportunities we were giving them early on -- odd-man rushes, lots of scoring chances -- your goalie isn't going to fare very well," center Joe Pavelski said. Yet Niemi's improved play goes beyond that. Over the past five months, Niemi and the Sharks have adjusted to one another. His teammates have learned that his likes and dislikes are not the same as those of Evgeni Nabokov, the goaltender they played in front of for the previous decade. And Niemi has had to adjust elements of his game to his new team's style of play.
Antti Niemi and San Jose Sharks are beginning to mesh
San Jose Mercury News | Feb 25