ANAHEIM, April 13, 2014 — As Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi let in one soft goal after another Wednesday night against the Ducks, that sound you heard was the collective groan of weary San Jose fans who had spent the better part of the season daring to hope that this might be their year.
True, the Sharks made the playoffs again, finishing in the top four in their conference and clinching home ice for the first round of the playoffs, but fans do not care about any of that. They are indifferent about division crowns, or a President’s trophy, or acquiring any new banners to hang inside SAP Center, unless it is an extra-large one with the Stanley Cup embroidered on it.
The Sharks have been poised on the verge of greatness for what seems like forever and yet, every spring, they fall disappointingly short. The syndrome is compounded by the fact that their California NHL brethren, the Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, have each hung a Stanley Cup banner in their rinks over the last decade. Each new season of Sharks hockey brings the same sentiment for fans: show us something in June.
San Jose continues to do everything right, packing its roster with talent, drafting shrewdly and painstakingly cultivating it’s top end prospects. General manager Doug Wilson went out and signed Niemi, a goaltender with a Stanley Cup on his resume, in an effort to push his club over the edge. So far, the results have remained eminently frustrating.
It is a hockey truism that goaltending and defense win championships. To see Niemi give up back to back soft goals Wednesday night, just as the Sharks are preparing to do battle with the Kings in the first round, was deflating to San Jose fans, and infuriating to head coach Todd McLellan. For clubs headed to playoffs, the final week of games is a time to rest veterans and tighten up their attention to detail. Nobody wants to limp into the postseason playing bad hockey.
Niemi’s play, solid for most of the season, has been inconsistent over the last month or two, and that is not good news for a Sharks organization which believes this might really be its time.
Alex Stalock, Niemi’s backup, has played well when called upon, but has no NHL playoff experience. Sharks insiders say McLellan was so distraught by Niemi’s performance against Anaheim that he considered going with Stalock to start the first round, although he appears to have reconsidered after having a day or two to calm down.
That being said, do not be surprised if Niemi is on an especially short leash against the Kings. The Sharks are desperate to win a championship with this veteran group before their window closes, and McLellan will do anything to make it happen.
On Saturday, Niemi had 30 saves in 32 attempts as the Sharks defeated the Phoenix Coyotes.
For Sharks fans, what comfort there might have been heading into the last week of the regular season was rattled Wednesday night, and they can now only hope that it was just a fluke, an off night, and that the Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi will be the one between the pipes when the playoffs start, not the guy with the gaping five hole that they saw against the Ducks.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.