Young Guns, Antti Niemi Playing Pivotal Roles in Sharks’ Playoff Push


Mar 7, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks right wing Melker Karlsson (68) has his shot blocked by Vancouver Canucks goalie Eddie Lack (31) during the second period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the year, the San Jose Sharks have been riddled with inconsistency after inconsistency whether it’d be management’s decisions or the efforts out on the ice, and with 14 games left now and playoff implications still on the line the Sharks have needed to find a way to get it done. Lately, it seems like they finally have.

Remember GM Doug Wilson’s statement, which he and head coach Todd McLellan have been adamant about all year, that the rookies would get a chance to see more ice time but it hadn’t been that way for almost the whole season? Now, post-trade deadline, they’re finally getting that chance. After trading Andrew Desjardins to the Chicago Blackhawks for right-wing forward Ben Smith and a conditional 2017 7th round pick and shipping James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy, to the New York Rangers and Islanders respectively, for two more picks (2016 and 2017 drafts), the message was starting to be a lot more clearer. The management was finally going to give the rookies more of an opportunity to see ice time at the NHL level.

In his last five games, including last night’s win over the Nashville Predators, Chris Tierney has a goal and two assists, totaling three points. His goal in the 6-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks last Tuesday, assisted by another fellow rookie Barclay Goodrow, was his second goal of the season. He also scored his first career NHL goal against the Canucks earlier this year.

In the 3-2 loss against that same team last Saturday, Melker Karlsson finally got on the board for his eleventh on the season. Most notably, though, in the 2-1 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday all the big guys like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski weren’t even on the score sheet, as it was Matt Nieto who opened the scoring for the Sharks late in the first period.

Of course, finally last night in a 2-0 shutout win over the now fifth-best team in the NHL — the Predators, it was the same case for the big guys. Only it was Tomas Hertl, who’d been having a shaky season, who scored against one of the elite goaltenders in Pekka Rinne and Tommy Wingels who’d later followed up with the empty netter late in the third, assisted by Chris Tierney and Hertl.

As you can see, the big leaders haven’t really been on the score sheet all that much lately. It’s been the kids who have been getting it done of late with the exception of that loss against the Canucks. Mirco Mueller, who’s been heavily mismanaged this season, has finally been seeing a lot more ice time lately and has been improving his defensive game. He’s become better at making great defensive plays when they’ve mattered most. He’s slowly adapting to the game at NHL level. While he’s got a long way to go still, I think he’s got a shot at being one of the top D-men for the San Jose Sharks just based on the way he’s been playing.

Tierney, whom I’d mentioned earlier, has also been one of the bright spots on the roster. Despite only having two goals on the season, he’s already collected 9 helpers, totaling 11 points in 29 games played. His work ethic is phenomenal. He reads the plays so well and he sets up his team mates brilliantly.

Hertl, who was a star last season after the four-goal performance against the Rangers, is finally getting some of his confidence back. Like Melker Karlsson, he’s not afraid to hit the net. He’s starting to understand the price you pay for battling for the puck and for position to score goals at the blue paint.

As for Nieto, he’s a great player, no doubt about it. But as Andrew Bensch of The Hockey Writers mentioned in his article yesterday, he has had some of the worst puck luck an NHLer could have this season. He has seven goals on the season now, but he went through a dry spell early on. And it’s not like he hadn’t been hitting the net. Regardless, he’s finally found himself on the score sheet lately, and that’s a great sign.

It’s obviously great that the young guns have stepped up their game for the Sharks, as they have been key to this playoff push. However, let’s not discredit Antti Niemi for backstopping the Sharks for a chance to win every night. As I’ve said before in another article, he hasn’t been perfect. Yes, he’s let in a couple of weak ones here and there, but with Alex Stalock not doing as good as he did in his full NHL season debut last year the Sharks for now kind of have no choice but to rely on Nemo to be on his game and carry them for the possible, yet still very slim, playoff run.

Not to beat a dead horse here, but the Sharks only have so many games remaining. So far, at least, they’re finally going on the right track. Despite the loss in their first game of this four-game home stand if they can finish it with a win over Chicago they’ll have 6 out of the 8 possible points, and hopefully with a bit of luck be able to catch the L.A. Kings in the standings and overtake them for the final Wild Card spot in the West. But the young players have to continue to be playing hard. Everyone’s got to give a full 60 minute effort every day and night. And, of course, Antti Niemi’s got to continue to make the big saves when needed.