Sitting Antti Niemi for Game 6 shows the Sharks are playing scared and overreacting after letting the Kings back into their series. It’s a move that could come back to haunt the Sharks.
It’s one thing to make a knee-jerk lineup decision. It’s another to make that wrong move after the very team you’re facing made the correct move, right under your nose, when faced with the same decision days earlier.
Remember when Jonathan Quick got the hook in Game 1 and struggled mightily in the first three games of the Sharks/Kings series? Remember when pundits galore called for Darryl Sutter to plug Martin Jones in for Game 4? The Kings didn’t blink. Instead, they stuck with their Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. He’d earned a little faith. And Quick responded with two straight victories, including a shutout in Game 5, to pull the Kings from a 3-0 series deficit to a winnable 3-2 margin heading back to Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Sharks pulled Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi in Game 4 after he surrendered five goals on 26 shots and again in Game 5 when he allowed three goals on 19 shots. In Game 6 they’re starting Alex Stalock, who stopped all 22 shots he faced in the final two periods of Game 5.
It’s a dangerous move, not because Stalock is a bad goaltender (he’s been outstanding this season), but because the Sharks are now playing poker with their cards facing out. We have a history of falling short of expectations, you’ve won two straight games, you’re in our heads and we’re scared. Now we’re benching our workhorse goaltender because we don’t trust him.
How bad has Niemi been? His rebound control was pretty horrific in Game 4, but take a look at the three goals in the Game 5 highlight pack:
The first was a beautifully timed shot by Tyler Toffoli, through a split-second screen, a la Alex Ovechkin. The second came on a rebound, albeit a bad one. The third was a fluky bank shot off San Jose blueliner Brad Stuart. So the Sharks are quitting on their Cup winner, who has more wins than any NHL goalie over the past two seasons, because of one bad game and, arguably, one unlucky game, in which the team in front of him scored zero goals at home.
If I’m the Kings, I’m licking my chops. As recently as a week ago, I praised the Sharks for their predatory instinct. But frightened roster decisions like this one have their opponent smelling blood in the water instead.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin