By signing goaltender Antti Niemi to a four-year contract, the San Jose Sharks have said to the rest of the NHL, “We’re serious this year.”
Ya, ya, I know. They’ve said it before. Often. Last year, they won the Presidents’ Trophy. They were poised to make a deep playoff run. Some of us thought they would win their first Cup. But, in the 2010 Western Conference Final, Niemi’s Chicago Blackhawks put the four-straight boots to the Sharks. Mostly because San Jose’s goaltending was lousy. Exit Evgeni Nabokov. Enter Antti Niemi.
After last season, when the Blackhawks walked away from Niemi’s arbitration award, Sharks’ GM Doug Wilson obviously thought Niemi was the answer to the age-old goaltending question in the silicon valley. So far this season, Wilson looks to be right. Niemi is 23-15-3 with a 2.44 goals-against avg, .919 sv pct and 5 shutouts in 42 games. But, as we all know, the regular season is not the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And, just maybe, Wilson has forgotten last year’s Stanley Cup Final. You know, the series the Hawks won despite Niemi’s performance in goal. In that six-game Chicago win, Niemi gave up five goals twice and four goals twice. That’s not good goaltending. It’s the opposite. But Doug Wilson is gambling that Niemi learned something from that Cup run. I bet he did too.
But Niemi can summon all the playoff heroics he wants, without Joe “When the going gets tough, I head for the back door” Thornton stepping up his playoff game, the Sharks will go nowhere. Any and all San Jose playoff success hinges on big number 19. And, this year, Thornton has had a lousy regular season. He has just 52 points in 61 games and a -8 rating. Those are not the numbers of a guy who’s going to lead his team to hockey’s holy grail.
Last year, Joe Pavelski scored nine times in 15 games for the Sharks. No one saw that coming. They will this year. The Sharks will not sneak up on anyone.
If the Sharks do not win it all this year, that’s probably a thumbs-up for GM Wilson to blow the whole thing up and start over. Rarely has an NHL team played so well, over many regular seasons, and had nothing to show for it come playoff time.
Will this year be different? If Antti Niemi can channel his Stanley Cup success…if Joe Thornton can finally become the playoff leader many thought he would years ago…then, yes, 2011 could very well be The Year of the Sharks.