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Niemi the right choice to start Game 6
Goaltender didn't receive a lot of help in previous loss
4/24/11 - By Mike Lee -

If you've been watching the playoffs outside of the San Jose - Los Angeles series, you'll know there have been some great games and compelling story lines in the other seven series being played. One of those has been the struggles Roberto Luongo has had of late in the Vancouver Canucks series with the Chicago Blackhawks. Luongo's issues in net have been a point of focus as the Canucks lost a third straight game on Sunday, to force a Game 7 in that series. Antti Niemi has had his share of critics in Game 2, 3 and 5 of the Sharks Western Conference Quarter Final series, but he's not in the same boat as Luongo.

Niemi established himself as the Sharks guy this spring, but big goal production by the Kings in those games has raised come concerns about his play. Sharks head coach Todd McLellan has been asked on more than one occasion in the series if he plans to start backup Antero Niittymaki in place of Niem, but the answer has always been the same.

No.

McLellan announced on Sunday that Niemi will start Game 6.

If you break down the three goals that Los Angeles scored on Saturday night in Game 5, you have to place more of the blame on the Sharks defense than Niemi.

Nobody was going to stop the first goal of the game. Rob Scuderi's shot pin-balled off two players before going in. Niemi's real mistake on the play was trying to clear the puck before the turnover, but the Kings were buzzing in the zone and there are three forwards who should have been patrolling the high slot. They couldn't stop the turnover, but they could have prevented the cross-ice pass that setup Scuderi's shot, or the shot itself.

The second goal was a 2-on-1 break. Niemi made the first save, but couldn't prevent the [ut back. A tall order no matter who the goaltender is. Again, where was the lone defender on the play? That defender had to pick one of the Kings on the play, but he covered neither. That play never even happens if Dan Boyle doesn't gamble in the Kings offensive zone with three skaters behind him.

Niemi probably should have stopped the 3rd Kings goal, but how does Niclas Wallin cough up that puck that preceded the goal in the first place? There was no pressure on him, yet he make a terrible play to setup the shot. Niemi was also screened by Kevin Westgarth which made that save more difficult than it appeared.

Giving up 3 goals on 4 shots is rough no doubt, but Niemi isn't responsible for all the damage.

We also don't know what McLellan's reasoning was for pulling Niemi. Was it because he thought his netminder was playing poorly, because he wanted to wake up his skaters, or a combination of both?

Yes, Niittymaki was perfect, stopping all 18 shots he faced, but it's not like his workload was substantial. The puck spent the majority of the game in the Kings zone, with 52 pucks finding their way to the Kings goal. Jonathan Quick stopped 51 of them, but if you count 14 pucks that missed the net, along with the 23 blocked shots, and there were 88 attempts in the contest.

18 shots in 50 minutes of play isn't exactly a barrage. Los Angeles also had little motivation to press offensively after jumping out to their three goal lead. They're strength is defense, so they leaned on that strength, to Niittymaki's benefit.

There's also the notion that the Kings were just hellbent on surviving and did whatever it took to survive. Having your seasn end is a pretty strong motivator. They will of course need to win two straight to keep their season alive.

It's not all doom and gloom. The Sharks were flying in the first period, but they just couldn't convert. I'm more concerned with the lack of presence in front of Quick. The one goal the Sharks did score came off a put back from 3 feet out.

The Sharks could have spent more time placing bodies in front of Quick. Their 6-goal outbursts in Games 3 and 4 were primarily generated by creating noise in front of the goal or pressing the puck below the dots. They'll need to cross-up Quick's focus by giving him too many things to pay attention to. The easiest way to do that is to get bodies in front of him.

Stats-R-Us

If historical trends have any value in a playoff series, the Sharks can lean on the fact that they are 5-2 all time when leading a playoff series 3 games to 2. Before you get too optimistic, recognize that they were 7-0 all time when leading a series 3 games to 1 before losing on Saturday night. I'll put a positive spin on things by saying that the 7-0 record didn't result in a Stanley Cup, so while they didn't win on Saturday, they also didn't win the Stanley Cup the 7 other times that they closed out the series with a win.

OK, that's a reach, but it's a better situation than the inverse. The Sharks are 1-8 all time when down 2 games to 3 in a playoff series.

If you're wondering, the Sharks are 4-2 all time when tied 3 games to 3 in the playoffs.



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