The National Hockey League is a win now league, and the Pacific Division is no exception. Right now, the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks seem to be running away with the top 3 spots in the division, as was expected by me in the beginning of the year. But home ice advantage is important, and the Sharks haven’t gained any ground on the Anaheim Ducks, who are just 4-6 in their last 10 or pulled as far as they could have ahead of the LA Kings, who are 1-8-1 in their last 10, that one win coming against the Sharks. The main reason the Sharks haven’t been able to to catch the Ducks is up and down play, and that all starts with Antti Niemi.
Now, before I dive into this too deep, I would like to stress that I am a huge fan of Antti Niemi and I’ve supported him when the years were rough to everyone who doubted him. But only because I knew he was the best option in net. Now, I’m not so sure. Even after coming off a Vezina Candidate season, Antti Niemi has been very up and down the past few months. Some nights, like against Chicago last Saturday, he stole the game and played a fantastic performance. But against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday, he made some terrible mistakes in the net that lead to 3 goals in 2:45 at the beginning of the 3rd period so the Flyers could coast on to a 5-2 lead. And in a division as cut throat as the Pacific, where the Ducks or Kings or even the Canucks could catch fire at any time (the Ducks already have and could do it again) the Sharks need to win now, and win often. I won’t blame all of it on Niemi. Players like Thornton, Marleau, and Burns have all struggled recently too and can’t seem to score. You need your top players to score. Last night the Sharks got great depth scoring from Havlat and Wingels to win 2-1 in overtime. But there is one reason that game was in overtime in the first place. His name is Alex Stalock.
From the stat sheet, Antti Niemi’s stats aren’t terrible. He’s 28-12-6 with a .912 save % and allows 2.40 goals a game. Those stats are nowhere near his Vezina Candidate year last year, but with a team with a high octane offense like the Sharks, that’s good enough to rack up some wins. But what happens when the offense goes through a slump? Niemi’s stats aren’t enough to keep them up. Head coach Todd McLellan has been giving Alex Stalock more and more starts that aren’t just the second game of back to back games. Remember, earlier this year Alex Stalock broke the San Jose Sharks record for most consecutive shutout minutes. So maybe it is time for Stalock to get more starts with the Sharks over the next month or so. Maybe even taking the starting job away from Antti Niemi for a bit.
It can’t be said enough. The NHL is a win now league. Right now, the Sharks offense is struggling, and Alex Stalock playing at such a high level, the Sharks have a better chance of winning with Stalock, who is 8-4-0 with a .938 save % and 1.67 goals a game, than they do with Niemi. Will Stalock be the answer the rest of the year? Who knows? But until the Sharks offense can get it going, I’d feel much more comfortable with their chances if they had Al “Lockdown” Stalock in the net. (Don’t question it. “Lockdown” is gonna be a thing. Trust me.)