Cross Checks: Antti Niemi

From the official NHL release:


NEW YORK (March 17, 2014) – Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, New York Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo and San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the week ending March 16.


Bobrovsky posted a 2-0-1 record with a 1.58 goals-against average and .950 save percentage to help the Blue Jackets (35-26-6, 76 points) gain five of a possible six points and move into third place in the Metropolitan Division. He began the week by making 39 saves in a 4-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings March 11. Bobrovsky then turned aside 24 shots and denied
1-of-2 shootout attempts in a 4-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks March 13. He capped the week by making 32 saves and stopping 2-of-4 shootout attempts in a 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild March 15. The 25-year-old native of Novokuznetsk, Russia, is 26-16-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and three shutouts in 46 appearances this season, including an 18-5-2 mark with a 2.13 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and two shutouts in his last 25 outings dating to Nov. 29.


Okposo led all players with seven points (1-6—7), including three consecutive multi-point performances, to power the Islanders (26-34-9, 61
points) to a pair of wins in three outings. He matched a career high with three assists in a 7-4 victory over the Vancouver Canucks March 10. Okposo then added two helpers in a 4-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks March 14 before capping the week with 1-1—2, his 21st multi-point performance of the season, in a 4-1 triumph over the Buffalo Sabres March 15. The 25-year-old native of St. Paul, Minn., is tied for fourth in the NHL with 69 points in
68 games this season, and has already established single-season career highs in goals (27), assists (42) and points while leading the Islanders in each category.


Niemi picked up three wins in three starts, posting a 1.67 goals-against average, .950 save percentage and one shutout to help the Sharks (45-17-7, 97 points) extend their winning streak to six games and keep pace with the Ducks (45-16-7, 97 points) in the race for the Pacific Division crown. He began the week by making 19 saves in a 6-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs March 11. After posting 35 saves in a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders March 14, Niemi then stopped all 41 shots he faced in recording his 27th career shutout in a 1-0 triumph over the New York Rangers March 16. The 30-year-old native of Vantaa, Finland, is tied for the League lead with 34 victories this season and has compiled a 2.33 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and four shutouts in 54 appearances.

The San Jose Sharks continue to hit home runs when it comes to managing their cap structure, and Friday's contract extensions signed by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are just the latest example.

Give credit to both veteran stars, who obviously didn’t want to go anywhere, but there’s no question had they gone to market July 1 they could have gotten more years and more dollars than what they agreed to with San Jose.

They’re still making very good money. Marleau will earn $6.66 million per year, Thornton $6.75 million per, but both would have cleared $7 million a year on the open market and gotten more than three years.

But that’s a credit to the culture that’s been created in San Jose, where players are willing to bend a little in order to make it all work within the team structure dynamic. In a league where so many teams are hamstrung by long-term deals that they will one day surely regret, the Sharks only have three players signed past the 2016-17 season.

And those three players, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, are in their prime right now. In fact, even those three star players took less to make it work the San Jose way.

Couture and Pavelski have identical five-year, $30 million extensions kicking in next season. Star players their age around the league are often signing at least for seven or eight years, but both Couture and Pavelski agreed to take five-year deals instead.

Vlasic, meanwhile, is in the first year of a five-year deal paying him on average $4.25 million a season. A bargain indeed.

Goalie Antti Niemi is in the third year of a four-year deal paying an average of $3.8 million per season. I think you know how cheap that is for a top-10 goalie in the league.

Hats off, therefore, to GM Doug Wilson for the way he’s managed his team/cap structure. Pretty impressive work for sure. Wilson has been criticized for not winning a Stanley Cup in San Jose over the past decade despite the good hockey teams he’s built, but let’s also point out that his team has played the second-most playoff games in the NHL behind only Detroit since 2004.

No question Wilson will always hear about it if his team never wins it all, especially with California cousins Anaheim and Los Angeles both winning the Cup during his time as Sharks GM. Still, you can’t say he’s not doing everything he can within the financial parameters of a medium-sized NHL market like San Jose to give the Sharks a chance to win every year.

And judging from their team salary structure for the next five years, they’ll be in the mix for a while yet.

Stars for October: Steen, Crosby and Niemi

November, 1, 2013
St. Louis Blues left wing Alexander Steen, Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the month of October.


Steen led all players with 11 goals, scoring in nine of 10 games and on 35.5% of his shots on goal, to help the Blues pick up 16 out of a possible 20 points (7-1-2). He posted five multi-point games, including
1-3—4 versus the New York Rangers Oct. 12, and also tied for second in the League with four power-play goals. Steen scored two game-winning goals, both in the final minute of regulation: Oct. 9 versus the Chicago Blackhawks (19:38 of the 3rd period) and Oct. 29 against the Winnipeg Jets (19:00). He has found the back of the net in each of his past five games, totaling 7-1—8 in that span. The 29-year-old Winnipeg native leads the Blues and ranks fifth in the NHL with 16 points (11-5—16) in 10 games.


Crosby paced the NHL with 21 points (8-13—21) in 13 games to lead the Penguins to first place in the Metropolitan Division (9-4-0, 18 points). He opened 2013-14 with points in each of his first eight games (7-10—17), his longest stretch to begin a season. Crosby also had six multi-point efforts, including his eighth career regular-season hat trick Oct. 12 versus the Tampa Bay Lightning (3-1—4) and three-point performances against both the Edmonton Oilers Oct. 15 and Vancouver Canucks Oct. 19. The 26-year-old Cole Harbour, N.S., native finished the month with points in 11 of 13 games; the Penguins went 9-2-0 in games in which he recorded a point, versus 0-2-0 when he failed to do so.


Niemi posted a 9-1-2 record with a 1.72 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and two shutouts in helping the Sharks earn a League-best
22 points (10-1-2). He allowed two or fewer goals in nine of his 12 appearances, including shutout victories over the Detroit Red Wings Oct. 21
(24 saves) and Montreal Canadiens Oct. 26 (22 saves). Niemi shared the NHL lead in wins and shutouts, while also placing in the top three in goals-against average and minutes (730:44). The 30-year-old Vantaa, Finland, native is playing in his fifth full NHL season and fourth with the Sharks after backstopping the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010.

Niemi is eating Kings' lunch at home

May, 27, 2013
Antti Niemi made 24 saves, leading the Sharks to a 2-1 win over the Kings in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Including the regular season, Niemi is a perfect 5-0 this season at home against the Kings. Game 7 will be Tuesday in Los Angeles at 9 ET. This will be the 1st Game 7 the Kings will HOST since 1989.

Western Conference Semifinals – Game 6
Sharks 2, Kings 1 - Series tied 3-3

* Home team has won all 6 games in series
* Sharks: 5-0 at home this postseason
* Joe Thornton (SJ): 2nd goal this postseason (1st on power play)
* T.J. Galiardi (SJ): 1st career postseason goal
* Antti Niemi (SJ): 24 saves; 5-0 at home vs Kings (includes postseason)
* Kings: 5-5 in potential series-clinching games over last 2 postseasons (2-2 on road)
* Dustin Brown (LA): 3rd goal this postseason (13th career)
* Game 7 records: Sharks (5-2), Kings (3-4)
* 2nd career Game 7 for Sharks head coach Todd McLellan (def. Red Wings in 2011)
* 7th career Game 7 for Kings head coach Darryl Sutter (3-3 in previous Game 7s)

Looking ahead to Tuesday’s Game 7, the Sharks own the NHL’s 3rd-best record in Game 7s at 5-2. The Kings are 3-4 in Game 7s. This will be first Game 7 the Kings will HOST since April 15, 1989 (win vs Oilers)

Best Win Pct in Game 7 – All-Time
Wild 1.000 2-0
Lightning .750 3-1
Sharks .714 5-2
Oilers .667 6-3
>>Source: Elias Sports Bureau

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- To a man, players on the San Jose Sharks heading into Game 4 felt they had outplayed the Los Angeles Kings despite being down in the series.

That’s fine and dandy, Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said the other day, but unless it shows up on the scoreboard, it means nothing.

Now it has. Now it does.

Brent Burns and Logan Couture scored the goals, Joe Thornton was a one-man wrecking crew, and the Sharks served notice Tuesday night with a second straight win in a 2-1 decision: If the defending Stanley Cup champions are going to have a shot at repeating, they’re going to have to raise their game to another level.

Because, right now, the Kings are fortunate it’s only a 2-2 series and not worse.

They were outshot 15-3 in the opening period Tuesday night, thanks to Jonathan Quick only being outscored 1-0, but the reigning Cup champions looked completely overmatched early on in what helped set the tempo for a Sharks win.

“That first period was as good as we’ve played possibly all year,” Boyle said.

On the flip side, the Kings have rarely looked so disorganized.

“You've got [to] prepare, get ready for the drop of the puck,” Kings center Mike Richards said. “It was 1-0 before we even knew what was going on out there.”

Burns opened the scoring 6:09 into the game, taking a beautiful feed from Thornton as their line, with T.J. Galiardi, skated circles around the Kings' zone.

“I thought they were very good early, established a relentless forecheck and used their size to their advantage,” Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said of the Thornton line. “Obviously, they got us the first goal. And the momentum they created ran throughout the rest of the lines, and everyone jumped on board.”

Wave after wave of Sharks pinned the Kings into their zone before an energized and raucous sellout crowd of 17,562 at HP Pavilion.

Thornton was an absolute beast, flicking off Kings defenders like they were flies.

“It’s the best I’ve seen him play,” his linemate, Galiardi, said. “I don’t know what he had for pregame meal today, but I hope he has it again in a couple of days. He was flying. And it’s so contagious; when Jumbo’s going, everybody is going. It’s pretty to watch.”

The Sharks kept the Kings hemmed into their zone nearly the entire first period.

“The Kings are spending way more time defending in their own zone than they were a year ago,” a veteran NHL scout said between periods.

Some of that is because the Kings’ back end hasn’t been set the entire season -- with no Willie Mitchell available, Alec Martinez (scratched on this night) struggling to find the form he had last season and Matt Greene having been out most of the season until finally being re-inserted into the lineup Tuesday night.

Whatever the case, the Kings’ blue line, especially the third pairing, just hasn’t had the symmetry and balance it had a season ago.

The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe Kings have found this playoff run a little trickier than last season's.
But credit the Sharks here, as well. They are right on top of the Kings with a speedy forecheck that has bottled up Los Angeles.

It’s incredible how much faster this Sharks team plays compared to a season ago when it went out meekly to the St. Louis Blues in the first round.

“We were more passive last year,” Thornton said. “This year, we’re aggressive. We just play well when we’re aggressive, and that’s probably been the key.”

While the Kings took a while to find their game on this night, it doesn’t help when you’re not getting the calls, either. A quick whistle in the second period robbed the Kings of a goal when it was obvious Antti Niemi did not have it. That should have been a goal for Los Angeles, and it would have cut the lead to 2-1. That would have been a big moment for the Kings.

“It was a quick whistle,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “That stuff tends to even itself out over the course of a year. Sometimes, you get a quick whistle your way. Sometimes, you don't.”

It was a tough call, and these are the type of things that didn’t seem to happen to this Kings team last season. Whether they’re calls from refs or plain breaks, everything seemed to go their way, in large part because they manufactured a lot of that good fortune with their play.

They rolled out to four consecutive 3-0 leads and barely faced any adversity en route to a well-deserved championship.

If they win the Cup again this season, it will be with a much different script.

The Kings head home now, where they’ve won 12 straight and are a perfect 5-0 in these playoffs. That’s a good place to turn this around.

“We're comfortable at home, so I think that's going to be a good thing, and we obviously have confidence there, too,” Richards said. “It's just a matter of playing our game. When we do that, we have success.”

The Kings began to recapture their game in the third period Tuesday night, finding the back of the net on Richards’ power-play goal at 9:46 and outshooting the Sharks 14-2.

“They’re the Stanley Cup champions for a reason,” Thornton said. “They’re going to hang around. In the third period, they played really, really well.”

But in the same fashion, the Kings chalked up being outshot 16-4 in the third period in Game 1 to the Sharks desperately trying to get back in the game, there was a similar feeling Tuesday night to the Kings’ third-period dominance.

“We have to [do] that from the start,” Brown said. “That's the difference in the game. They dominated the play, especially in the first 30 minutes.”

A dandy of a series is now a best of three, with the underdogs believing more than ever they have a chance at dethroning the champs.

“We’re in a good place right now, and it’s only going to get harder,” Boyle said.

A few nights ago in L.A., after the Sharks suffered what seemed like a crushing, Game 2 loss, McLellan confidently told reporters that his team would bounce back. He felt these Sharks were different than in seasons past.

He was right.

“The character in our locker room … you could feel it when we left L.A. on the plane after Game 2,” the Sharks coach said. “We were ready to get back to work.

“We’re going to swing the bat when we’re up there.”
From the official NHL release:


NEW YORK (May 8, 2013) -- Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks are the three finalists for the 2012-13 Vezina Trophy, which is awarded “to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at his position,” the National Hockey League announced today.

The general managers of the 30 NHL clubs submitted ballots for the Vezina Trophy at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters designated as finalists. The winner will be announced during the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, with more detail on format to be released at a later date.

Following are the finalists for the Vezina Trophy, in alphabetical

Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bobrovsky (21-11-6, 2.00 goals-against average, .932 save percentage, four shutouts) backstopped Columbus' late-season surge that kept the club in contention for a playoff berth until the final moments of the season.
The first-time Vezina finalist appeared in all but one of the Blue Jackets'
franchise-record 12-game point streak (8-0-4) from Feb. 26 through Mar. 22 that spurred the club's move up the standings. He won eight of his last nine decisions from April 9-27, posting a 1.64 goals-against average and .945 save percentage in that span. He ranked second among NHL goaltenders in save percentage and sixth in goals-against average.

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

Lundqvist, the reigning Vezina winner, tied for the NHL lead in wins, posting a 24-16-3 record with a 2.05 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. He also tied for the League lead in starts (43), ranked fifth in save percentage and seventh in goals-against average. He posted his eighth consecutive 20-win season, the longest current streak among active goaltenders. Lundqvist helped clinch his seventh trip to the playoffs in eight NHL seasons by allowing two goals or fewer in 16 of his last 20 games, going 13-5-2 with a 1.77 GAA and .935 save percentage in that span.
He is a Vezina finalist for the fifth time, finishing first in 2012 and third from 2006 through 2008.

Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks

Niemi shared the NHL lead in starts (43), saw more ice time than any other goaltender (2,580:46) and ranked third in shots faced (1,220) and saves (1,127). He helped the Sharks post the League's sixth-best defensive record (2.33 goals-against per game) by going 24-12-6 with a 2.16 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and four shutouts, tying for first place in wins and placing seventh in save percentage. Niemi is a Vezina finalist for the first time and is the fourth Finland native in the past seven seasons to make the top three, joining Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom and Nashville's Pekka Rinne.


Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau and Joe Cattarinich, former owners of the Montreal Canadiens, presented the trophy to the National Hockey League in 1926-27 in memory of Georges Vezina, the outstanding Canadiens goaltender who collapsed during an NHL game on Nov. 28, 1925, and died of tuberculosis a few months later. Until the 1981-82 season, the goaltender
(s) of the team allowing the fewest number of goals during the regular season were awarded the Vezina Trophy.

Announcement Schedule

The NHL is announcing the three finalists for its regular-season awards through May 20. The remaining announcement schedule:

Thursday, May 9
Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by NHLPA) **Ted Lindsay Award nominees will be announced by the NHLPA

Friday, May 10
Hart Memorial Trophy (most valuable player to his team)

Monday, May 13
General Manager of the Year Award

Tuesday, May 14
Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (perseverance and dedication to hockey)

Wednesday, May 15
Frank J. Selke Trophy (top defensive forward)

Thursday, May 16
Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (skill/sportsmanship)

Friday, May 17
Jack Adams Award (top head coach)

Monday, May 20
Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award presented by Bridgestone (player who exemplifies great leadership qualities to his team, on and off the ice)
From the official NHL release:


NEW YORK (April 1, 2013) – Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Joffrey Lupul, San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi and Edmonton Oilers left wing Taylor Hall have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the week ending March 31.


Lupul led the League with nine points in four games and also tied for first with five goals, including three game-winners and three power-play tallies. He opened the week with one goal in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Boston Bruins March 25. Lupul then scored the game-winner in each of Toronto’s next three games – he recorded two goals in a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers March 26, collected one goal and one assist in a 6-3 triumph over the Carolina Hurricanes March 28 and posted three assists plus his 20th career game-winner in a 4-0 win at the Ottawa Senators March 30.
The 29-year-old Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., native has 8-5—13 in nine games this season, all of which have come in his last six outings.


Niemi had an NHL-best four wins and two shutouts to go along with a
1.22 goals-against average and .952 save percentage in four appearances. He made 24 saves in a 5-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks March 25. Niemi then posted back-to-back shutouts, recording 22 stops in a 4-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks March 27 and 27 saves in a 2-0 triumph over the Detroit Red Wings March 28. He closed the week by making 27 stops, plus another two in the shootout, in a 3-2 win over the Phoenix Coyotes March 30. The 29-year-old Vantaa, Finland, native has appeared in 30 games this season and ranks in the top 10 in the League in wins (16), goals-against average (2.13), save percentage (.925) and shutouts (three).


Hall tied for first in the NHL with five goals and ranked second with eight points in four games. He scored one goal in a 3-2 loss at the Nashville Predators March 25, collected 1-2—3 in a 3-0 victory over the St.
Louis Blues March 26 and recorded one assist in a 6-4 triumph over Columbus Blue Jackets March 28. Hall then broke Wayne Gretzky’s franchise record for the fastest hat trick to start a game when he scored three times in the first 7:53 of a 4-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks March 30. The 21-year-old Calgary, Alta., native and former No. 1 overall pick leads the Oilers with 23 assists and 34 points in 31 games this season.

Case of the Mondays: March 24-25

March, 26, 2012
We watch the games, so you don't have to. And then we write stuff down about them. So you don't have to.

--Alex Ovechkin tapes his stick one strand at a time, like the rest of us. He has scored nine goals in his last seven games and dates a Russian tennis player, not like the rest of us.
--Say it with me now: Malkin-wins! Malkin-wins! (To the tune of "Malkovich! Malkovich!" from "Being John Malkovich.")
--Panthers fans showed their excitement at potentially having the No. 3 seed in the playoffs by staying away in droves from a loss to the Islanders. Rats!
--Edmonton beat Columbus in a battle of the league's two most brutal teams. It's OK for a man to cry, Nail Yakupov.
--How about those Predators! Nashville-New York Stanley Cup finals. "I'm a little bit country..." "...and I'm a little bit rock 'n' roll." No one appreciates a good Donnie and Marie Osmond reference anymore.
--Tiger Woods. There, that ought to help our Google results.
--What would the playoffs look like if they started today? Glad you asked. Click it.
--Solidifying: Ottawa. Fading: Calgary, Winnipeg. Too close to call: Buffalo, Washington, Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose, Colorado, margarine vs. butter.

--The Rangers beat the Leafs in a shootout to take first overall in the NHL for one night (yes, technically, smarty pants, they were tied in points with St. Louis). Needing the shootout to beat the Leafs and their beachball goaltending should be of grave concern to Rangers fans the world over.
--Hey, you are Tim Thomas. That commercial provides endless material. Anyway, Thomas stood on his head, his arm, his legs, etc., while helping his Bruins continue their rebound with a big win in Los Angeles. Zdeno Chara played in game No. 1,000. Boy, you've got to think Mike Milbury is satisfied with how that trade worked out.
--So, I'm working Saturday night, getting ready to write the headline that the Wings stink after a loss to the Hurricanes. Next thing I know, they've scored four straight goals and have ended their six-game losing streak. It was Nicklas Lidstrom's first game back from injury. Considering Lidstrom's pending retirement, sell your Wings stock.
--Let's play word association. Antti Niemi -- a stone wall. Joe Thornton -- a tall man with curly hair who likes to help others. San Jose Sharks -- improving their playoff chances while making sportswriters stay up so late that they miss the all-you-can-eat breakfast bar at IHOP. For example.
Time to debate the hot topics of the day, with Scott Burnside and Craig Custance. Here we go.

BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. As the days dwindle down toward the end of the regular season, I am more and more convinced that there will be only room for either the San Jose Sharks or the Los Angeles Kings in the postseason dance. Shocking, really, given that I think most prognosticators liked both teams to easily qualify for the playoffs and battle tooth and nail for the Pacific Division title. Now, given the mediocrity in the Pacific, I suppose that’s still possible. But the schedule-makers have set up a dynamic that suggests only one will survive, and right now it looks like the talented Sharks will be on the outside looking in. In spite of getting Martin Havlat back into the fold, the Sharks continue to stumble around without a clue. Tuesday night they were mauled by the Kings in Los Angeles by a 5-2 count. They were outshot 42-22 as the Kings won their fifth straight and jumped into eighth place in the conference. The Sharks, meanwhile, languish in 10th place. Yes, they’re just two points out of eighth place but is there anything that suggests they’re capable of mounting a challenge to the teams ahead of them? The Sharks have won just three of their past 11 games and, perhaps worse for them, finish the season with a home-and-home against the Kings. Their goaltending has been shoddy, they can’t get timely scoring and seem to lack the kind of leadership needed to get over the hump. After two straight trips to the Western Conference final, this would be a huge setback, needless to say, but would it be the kind of setback that causes a dramatic change at the top?

CUSTANCE: There's no doubt that the Sharks missing the playoffs would be a colossal failure, and not just because I picked them to win the Stanley Cup. How you can get blown out 5-2 in an absolutely crucial game against the Kings is beyond me. That kind of effort is mystifying.

If this team misses the playoffs, some decisions in team construction will definitely be scrutinized. Hitching the wagon to Antti Niemi isn't looking like the smartest move. Since the All-Star break, Niemi is 7-10-4 with a 2.81 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. The deadline-day decision to send Jamie McGinn to Colorado for T.J. Galiardi and Daniel Winnik isn't panning out either. McGinn has 10 points in 11 games for the Avalanche, while Galiardi and Winnik have combined for exactly one point. Playoff teams need secondary scoring and the Sharks aren't getting it.

But if you look at the big picture, there aren't many GMs who have put their teams in position to win in the playoffs more often than Doug Wilson has in his tenure with San Jose. I'd have a real hard time making any changes to the duo of Wilson and coach Todd McLellan considering they've made two consecutive trips to the West finals. And the playoffs are a funny thing. Let's say the Sharks manage to grab the No. 8 seed in the West and face the Blues in the first round. Which team would you bet the kid's college fund on?

BURNSIDE: Well, I don’t think the Sharks are going to make it so your excellent question of whether the Sharks could affect a major upset in the playoffs is going to be moot (and I’m not just saying that because you picked the Sharks to win the Cup, although I do kind of enjoy that part of it). One of the reasons the table is tilted against San Jose, beyond having two more games against the Kings, is that Dallas, Phoenix and Colorado continue to collect points. I watched that Dallas-Phoenix tilt Tuesday night and, with the Pacific Division lead on the line, the teams didn’t disappoint with an often chippy performance that had definite playoff intensity (ask Jamie Benn, who took a nasty Shane Doan elbow to the noggin). The Coyotes erased a 3-1 lead and then had three or four glorious chances to win it in overtime but Kari Lehtonen was superlative. You and I have saw Lehtonen up close in Atlanta during his formative years and I remain skeptical he is a franchise goalie kind of guy. But his play in the last month or so for a Dallas team that looked like it was a bubble playoff team has been impressive. He stopped 27 of 30 shots and then all three in the shootout. He has won eight of 10. I spoke with president Jim Lites Tuesday and the Stars’ strong play is translating into terrific crowds for the Stars after playing to an empty house for much of the first half of the season. Good news for the Stars. Bad news for the Sharks.

CUSTANCE: Oh, I think Lehtonen has done more than enough to earn the franchise label during the second half of this season. He's answered questions regarding his durability and the only question remaining is how he'll respond to the pressure of the playoffs. Last time I saw him get ready for the postseason, he dyed his hair Thrashers blue in a stunt that rubbed veteran teammates the wrong way. I think it's safe to say he's grown up considerably since 2007, when he gave up 11 goals in two playoff games against the Rangers. That kick save he made last night on Oliver Ekman-Larsson in overtime was absolutely phenomenal. Remember that one if Dallas wins the Pacific by a point. And Joe Nieuwendyk's quiet offseason addition of Michael Ryder continues to pay off. He had another two goals last night in helping the Stars hold off the Coyotes and now has 32 goals this season. He has 10 points in nine games this month. Unbelievable. You mentioned that Shane Doan elbow on Jamie Benn, I'm thinking that could be trouble for Phoenix. Doan was fined last week and Brendan Shanahan hasn't gone easy on players he's had to have multiple conversations with this season. Doan has a hearing with the league Wednesday and if he's out any length of time, that could crush playoff hopes in Phoenix. That team is remarkably resilient, but Doan is the Coyotes' heart and soul.

BURNSIDE: Ah, how fondly I remember that blue dye job during the Thrashers’ one and only playoff run (stumble?). One game I’ll be keeping an eye on Wednesday night will be Vancouver’s visit to Chicago. The Blackhawks are on a tear. Even without captain Jonathan Toews, whose continued absence due to concussion symptoms remains a major concern for Hawks fans, Chicago has turned in some of its best all-around performances in recent days. Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane were impressive in 5-2 spanking of Washington on Sunday and they will put a four-game winning streak on the line tonight against the Canucks. A win could put the Hawks in a tie with Nashville and Detroit after it looked not so long ago that Chicago was destined for a fourth-place finish in the Central. Meanwhile, a fan asked during my chat Monday whether the Canucks’ tepid play of late was cause for concern, and I suggested that this is a team with little left to play for at this stage of the season. They’re too far behind St. Louis for a realistic run at the top seed in the conference or the Presidents’ Trophy and they’re miles ahead of Colorado in the Northwest. But their seeming inability to get ready for games, especially for games against lesser opponents like Minnesota, which beat them 2-0 on Monday, or Montreal has to be troubling for Canucks fans. Vancouver has won just three times in 10 games and one of those wins was against lowly Columbus. In short, one would imagine Chicago is a team Vancouver shouldn’t have any trouble getting up for. Should be a fun one.

CUSTANCE: It's always fun when those two teams go at it. I agree with you on the Canucks. Things are so tight in this league that if a group is even the slightest bit off or a step behind the opponent, it makes winning nearly impossible. A lot of the good teams have gone through stretches like we're seeing Vancouver endure right now and I think motivation plays a big part in that. The Canucks face a Chicago team that is clicking. You mentioned the strong play up front but I also think the Blackhawks are starting to reap the benefits of the Johnny Oduya trade that allowed Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith to reunite. Those two are playing well, with Keith putting up four assists in the win over Columbus. Seabrook led the team in ice time and was a plus-2. If those two are clicking and Toews can get healthy, that's an extremely dangerous team come playoff time. We joked about it on the podcast yesterday but they might want to ease up on the throttle. They're sitting comfortably in the No. 6 spot, which would mean a first-round series against the Pacific winner. To me, that's much more attractive than moving up to No. 5 and potentially facing a loaded Predators team that gave Chicago fits the last time they squared off in the postseason. Speaking of the Predators, time to get ready for the Alexander Radulov news conference. It's been fun Scott, enjoy the games.

Rant answers: Fans have the Blues

March, 20, 2012
Some well-thought-out rants this week. And others that were just plain angry. So we thank you. Let’s take a look:

R.DK: POUTINE!!!! Now that I have your attention, do I ever HATE the shootout! It doesn't prove who the better team is on any given night. And the worst part is I know it's not going anywhere. You're an insider, how do we get rid of the gimmick?

My take: Well, I can’t resist a rant that starts with poutine. Mmmm ... But I digress. Yes, the shootout. I’m not a fan of it, either. To me, it’s run its course. But the majority of fans still seem to love it, judging from the reaction in the stands when a shootout is happening. That’s good enough for the league. Most of the NHL’s 30 GMs also are down on the shootout, which is why they voted in favor of adding the "ROW" tiebreaker rule two years ago. That minimizes the importance of the shootout for a standings tiebreaker (only regulation and overtime wins count for the tiebreaker). In addition, Red Wings GM Ken Holland is on record saying he favors extending overtime to including a second five-minute period of three-on-three play. I’m fully in favor of that. Obviously, that would reduce the amount of shootouts held every year. Right now, though, the shootout is here to stay, like it or not.

ClarkAveSTL: I have to rant about the Ben Bishop trade. As a Blues fan, I hate to see him go. He is looking sharp for Ottawa already and I'm not sure Brian Elliott will have the long-term success the Blues are hoping for. The trade is good for Bishop, seeing as how he is 25 and might not have seen any serious playing time for the Blues for at least a couple more years. But I really feel like the Blues let one get away on this one.

My take: I understand your frustration, because I believe Bishop has No. 1 potential. But the fact is, Bishop was going to walk out the door July 1 as an unrestricted free agent and the Blues would have got nothing in return for him. At least they got a second-round pick. And don’t tell me you think the Blues could have re-signed him. I don’t think Bishop would have wanted to remain blocked by two goalies in that organization. In Ottawa, he’s got a better shot.

hawkfreak1010: As an Avalanche fan, it's extremely frustrating for me to look at the current standings in the Western Conference. To be more specific, it's frustrating that the teams they are battling with for the eighth and final playoff spot all have significantly fewer wins than the Avs, but because they lose more of their games in OT they get rewarded with a point. SJ: 10 OTL, LA: 12 OTL, Phoenix: 11 OTL and Calgary: 13 OTL!!!! The Avs have five OTL and 39 wins, which is three more than San Jose and Phoenix, four more than Los Angeles and five more than Calgary, yet they are all separated by no more than two points!! I understand what the system is supposed to be doing, but it's completely unfair for a team to make the postseason over a team with more wins!! Isn't winning what you're supposed to do in sports, not hold off a team until OT and then lose?

My take: Totally agree, my friend. Hence my column a few weeks back about why Steve Yzerman and I favor three-point, regulation-time victories. The bottom line is that three points for a 60-minute win (like in European soccer) would better reflect teams that "win" games. But I understand the league’s view on this, which is that the current system keeps closer races to the wire. You can’t deny that. Still, I think a truer reflection of the balance of power should be the ultimate goal. And that’s what three points for a regulation win would give you.

MJMcGurk: My rant is about the lack of effort night in and night out by the Washington Capitals. They are fighting, not literally of course, for the final playoff spot. Yet they go into Chicago and it takes them over 16 minutes to register a shot on goal. This has been the norm lately, especially on the road, and it certainly doesn't get better at Detroit and at Philly. I can live with the loss at Winnipeg. They came out with some fire. But that is the exception and not the rule for them.

My take: Easily the most disappointing team of the NHL season when you consider the talent level and expectations. I point to three key reasons, in no particular order:

1. Nicklas Backstrom's concussion. He is their best player. There, I said it. Once he went down, it made things all the more difficult for all kinds of reasons. He’s their most consistent player. They just can’t win regularly without him.

2. Alex Ovechkin. He’s played better of late, but 32 goals doesn’t cut it for a player of his talent and compensation. Until he agrees to commit 12 months a year to his game like his compatriots Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, the Caps will be worse for it.

3. Goaltending. Veteran Tomas Vokoun has been decent, but he was only a one-year stopgap. The hope, or the plan, in the Caps' front office was that Michal Neuvirth would react to the Vokoun signing and bring his game to another level. Instead, his 2.85 goals-against average and .900 save percentage have him ranked among the bottom. He’s been a huge disappointment.

shelbycoker: I'm tired of all this crap saying the Panthers aren't a legitimate NHL team. They just came off a four-game homestand winning all four while missing their best player for three of those games. They embarrassed the Bruins and Maple Leafs. The Panthers deserve way more credit than they get. In fact, I think they have the talent to make a run for the Eastern Conference championship this year!

My take: Hey, Tampa reached the Eastern Conference finals last season and Montreal the season before that. So by now we all know that in the mediocre East, anything is possible. As for the Panthers, they have been a terrific surprise. GM Dale Tallon has a tremendous eye for talent, having helped build the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. But you also have to be honest and point out that the Panthers are leading the weakest division in the league in the Southeast. It’s not their fault the division is weak, but that is the truth nonetheless.

CalvinMN: You want a real rant? I live in Minnesota, where hockey is ingrained in our culture, and the Wild are absolutely terrible. We lost to Columbus twice -- in the same week. We have fewer points than every team in the Eastern Conference. We’ve already been shut out three times this month. We’re last in goals scored -- by a 16-goal margin. We have no depth at forward. Our defense is inexperienced. Our third-string goalie is now our starter. I don’t think any of us expected to stay at the top of the league, but falling to 28th didn’t seem possible. Leave it to the Wild to defy the odds! I know we’ve been brutalized with injuries -- we’ve heard that excuse before -- but winning teams find a way to win. I know Chuck Fletcher started with a piecemeal roster and an empty prospect cupboard, but when are we going to push through all the excuses and get a winning attitude in Minnesota?

My take: Cannot blame you one bit for feeling so frustrated. Sitting first overall in early December and now close to the basement of the NHL, that’s got to rip a Wild fan’s heart out. The biggest problem to me is so obvious: offense. This team needs a serious upgrade in its top-six group. I know that’s what Fletcher was trying with Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, but that hasn’t worked out well. Zach Parise is a UFA on July 1. I’d be shocked if Parise doesn’t include his native Minnesota among the teams he’d consider. That’s the move this franchise needs.

obrand6: If I'm a Nashville player right now, I'm absolutely livid that Alexander Radulov is coming back just in time for the playoffs. To think that all year, you battle hard to succeed only to have this guy come in and take a roster spot away from you. You HAVE to think it will mess with team chemistry, right? If I'm Shea Weber I'm letting everyone -- including Radulov -- know that NOTHING will change and that I'm still the undisputed leader of this team.

My take: To the contrary, in terms of Nashville players’ reaction. My understanding is that Weber has actually been totally supportive of Radulov's returning. It’s all in the name of trying to win this year. Keep in mind that Weber and fellow stud blueliner Ryan Suter are free agents on July 1. This is a big year for Nashville in so many ways. I’m told Weber and Suter totally embraced the idea of Radulov coming back to help the Preds now.

banzai51: Let me leave this here for everyone. Since we're all tribal in our complaints and can't talk about hockey beyond our local. ...

(My team) is not getting the (choose one) love/respect/officiating it deserves! (Player on my team) is having a phenomenal year, but all anyone can talk about is (choose one)the Crosby injury/complain about Crosby coverage. (yep, I'm including that for you Pittsburgh).


When is Brendan Shanahan going to do his job!!!! (My_Player) got machete attacked by (Player I hate) and nothing from the NHL front office. The refs didn't even call a dang penalty!! OUTRAGE!!! (Insert Old Time Hockey nonsense here).

My take: This was too good to ignore.

GdoubleG22: One word: accountability. Where is it within the New York Islanders organization? How long must I, as a die hard fan of this team for all 20 years of my life, be subjected to this incompetence, mediocrity and sheer buffoonery? At a certain point, you cannot blame the players anymore. Commish Gary Bettman needs to step in and make Charles Wong hire a GM with more experience than just being a career backup goaltender. Capuano is not an NHL coach and Snow is not an NHL GM. After declaring that he fully expects the team to make the playoffs, shouldn't someone within the front office be losing their job after again being a bottom dweller in the Eastern Conference? Pierre, what needs to be done to right the ship?

My take: It starts at the top. The owner’s unpredictability makes it an unstable franchise. I’ll actually give GM Garth Snow credit for being able to do a passable job under those circumstances. I know this doesn’t make any Islander fan feel any better because they’ve heard it so many times, but I don’t think they’re that far away. They’ve got a superstar, cornerstone play in John Tavares and a decent supporting cast with some intriguing prospects in the system. But yes, while Wang remains the owner, one never knows if that kind of promise can ever be fulfilled.

Ludlumtc: Good morning, Pierre. I appreciate the coverage you provide here on I haven't ranted in a while, but my rant this week is in regards to goalie interference, in specific to the call on Tomas Holmstrom Saturday night at the Shark Tank. Reviewing the video of the penalty, to me it seemed Antti Niemi basically stuck his stick out as Homer was skating by. If anything it should've been a delay of game on Niemi. I know there are only eight eyes in real time on the ice that are in control of that aspect of the game, but c'mon that is just a weak call. It seems there is too much grey area in that aspect of the game. The last few years, the NHL has done a pretty good job of cleaning and defining this stuff. When will this issue be clearly defined?

My take: There was some talk of this last week at the NHL GMs meeting. My understanding is that the league will once again make this a point of emphasis with on-ice officials over the rest of the season.

Goaler82: I hate that LEGAL hits result in fights today in the NHL. I understand defending your teammate if they receive a dirty hit but can't NHL players take legal hits anymore? I think players who start a fight over an unpenalized hit should get an extra penalty. Make the team pay for it with a penalty kill.

My take: I could not agree more. It’s something that crept into the NHL game about a decade ago. If it’s a clean hit, there should be a fight. Take his number and hit him harder next shift. Not sure why this has changed.

stlbluenote11:Pierre, this rant is directed towards the media. Saturday the Blues beat the Lightning 3-1, and were the first team to make it to 100 points. They were also the very first team to clinch a playoff birth. Were they on the homepage? No. They at least had to be the lead on the NHL homepage? No. They were fifth on the list. Really? Is the bias really that big? News is news, and the team that is first in the NHL needs to get some respect, regardless of the size of the market. A Journalist's job is to get the story out there, the one that means the most to the league. The Blues were the first to clinch a spot, and that is more newsworthy than any score on that day. Florida can wait. Pittsburgh can wait. The Rangers have had their time. The team that is getting stuff done day in and day out deserves the credit. Get your act together and realize that the Blues are legit this year. Get used to writing about them, they're going to be in the playoffs for a while.

My take Well, you’ll be happy to know that yours truly is planning on beginning his two-month playoff trek in St. Louis come the first round. So there you go, in the house, baby!

Stock Up

Matt Calvert, Columbus Blue Jackets: The playoff ship may have sailed for the Blue Jackets, who are winless in three including a disappointing loss Thursday to Edmonton, but what a find Matt Calvert has been. The 21-year-old, a fifth-round draft pick in 2008, has been lighting it up with 11 goals in 23 games since being called up from Springfield of the AHL. He has seven goals in his last six games for the Blue Jackets, three of which have come on the power play. For a team with the 26th ranked power play, that bodes well for the future.

Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks: Talk about smokin' hot. Both netminder Antti Niemi, he of the new contract extension, and the Sharks are on fire. With their big win over Detroit Thursday, the Sharks are just three points back of Detroit for the second seed in the Western Conference. Niemi, by the way, has won eight straight starts. He has allowed just 13 goals over this period, including two wins over Detroit and victories over Pittsburgh, Washington, Calgary and Nashville.

Stock Down

Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh Penguins: Bereft of top scoring talent like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz, the Penguins are struggling to find enough offense to cobble together wins. The Pens are 1-2-3 in their past six games and have scored just 13 times over that period and six of those goals came in their lone win over Toronto. One guy who will have to pick up the pace if the Pens find themselves without Crosby come playoff time will be center Jordan Staal who has just one goal in his last eight games. Still one of the premier two-way forwards in the game, Staal also has top end offensive skills and needs to bring them to bear more often.

Tim Connolly, Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres missed a golden opportunity to jump into the playoff bracket in the Eastern Conference Thursday night, losing in overtime to Carolina. Brad Boyes looks early on to be an astute trade deadline pickup with his second goal in as many games for the Sabres, but it's another forward, Tim Connolly, who will need to help out as well if the Sabres are going to push their way into a postseason berth. Blessed with great skill but hampered by injury much of his career, Connolly was rumored to be on the block at the deadline but remained a Sabre. He has gone 11 straight games without a goal and has only eight goals on the season.

Reunion paying off for Sharks

October, 28, 2010
Exactly a week ago on Thursday, Todd McLellan ended the experiment. For the time being.

With his team somewhat sluggish out of the gates this season and looking for inspiration, the San Jose Sharks head coach halted the divorce of the big boys, reuniting Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau during the second period of a 4-2 win over Colorado.

"And they've been together since," McLellan told

The Sharks responded since then with three quality victories and that "one stinker in Calgary," McLellan said. But overall getting the top line back together has been the tonic his team needed at this point, punctuated Wednesday night by the Team Canada Olympic trio scoring every single goal in a 5-2 win over New Jersey, the big boys combining for a whopping 13 points.

"For the most part they've done a good job of igniting the team and everyone seems to be falling in line," the coach said. "Maybe that's what they were waiting for. Maybe the coach was the dummy that kept them apart, I don't know."

The coach is no dummy. I like what McLellan did in camp and to begin the season, separating those three star players. His theory was sound: they needed to try and develop chemistry with other linemates because over the course of a long year, whether it's injuries or slumps or matchups, you're going to play with other people. So get to know them better on the ice.

"In the playoffs last year we had to break them up for different reasons, obviously playing against Detroit with Datsyuk and Zetterberg playing on different lines," McLellan sid. "We're going to need that again this year. So the experiment with them being apart is certainly not over. But we'll stick with what we have now and we'll get our game to where it's supposed to be."

San Jose's game is still not up to par, although it's getting there. A middling 4-3-1 start has had its ups and downs. Wednesday's win over New Jersey, to me, was the perfect microcosm of the young season for the Sharks. In the first period, they overwhelmed the Devils, and it looked like they were going to run away with a 9-1 victory. But by my vantage point on the couch three time zones away, they fell asleep in the second period and looked out of sync. It's still a work in progress.

"Looking for some consistency," McLellan said. "We've been pretty good for large portions and then, like you said, we might get a little dopey at times and not execute the way we can."

His precise focus is the team's execution in its own end.

"When we're going out of our end clean, we're a much better team," the coach said. "So we've got some work to do there. I thought the Devils game was a real reflection of that -- when we're able to make a pass or two (from the back end) and get our eyes up and get going, we were a very effective team. When we muddled around in our end and couldn't get the puck off the boards, we became pretty average. Obviously some work to do there."

I still think this blue-line corps needs an addition. The Sharks never replaced Rob Blake in the offseason. They need another top-four type. Not that they grow on trees, but I suspect that's something Sharks GM Doug Wilson will continue to monitor between now and the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

In goal, Antti Niemi has been outplayed by Antero Niittymaki, as underlined by the latter's .932 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average that places him among the league leaders. Not to mention the most important stat: his 3-0-1 record. It appears McLellan might be leaning a bit more on "Nitty" for now. But fantasy leaguers shouldn't get carried away. The Sharks coach hasn't designated anyone the starter for the rest of the season.

"I think it's way too early for me to declare that, by any means," McLellan said. "Antti Niemi is going to be a very good goalie for us as well. We anticipate that he's going to find his game and continue to work on it. With Nitty right now, he's playing better than Antti. When the team needs to win some games, we'll go with the hot guy and that happens to be Nitty right now."

1. Devils' struggles more than Kovalchuk

No one is saying much about the actual reason $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk watched from the press box during Saturday's 6-1 throttling at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres, but the writing is on the wall early in the season for this once-proud franchise. And what those words say is this: We stink.

Crippled by salary-cap woes directly related to Kovalchuk's 15-year, $100 million deal, the Devils have had to play with less than a full complement of players and have been forced to use players that clearly aren't ready for NHL play to fill in for injured regulars. Injuries and salary-cap mismanagement have conspired to produce a 2-6-1 record, a 26th-ranked power play, an offense that ranks 30th in goals per game and a defense that ranks 25th in goals allowed per game.

But if you think this all falls at Kovalchuk's feet, you're wrong. Kovalchuk is tied for the team lead in goals (3) and points (6). If you're looking for folks to share the blame for the team's miserable start, there are lots available. Patrik Elias has one goal. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner has zero goals and just four assists. Travis Zajac has one goal.

Which brings us back to Kovalchuk's benching. All concerned say it was an internal matter and everyone is moving on. Kovalchuk scored the team’s only goal in Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Rangers and logged 22:41 in ice time, the most of all Devils forwards.

Perhaps the Devils will right the ship and the benching by rookie head coach John MacLean will be seen as a defining moment for both the coach and his team. Or maybe this move will merely hasten the first coaching change of this young NHL season, a signal of far-reaching dysfunction within a once-solid organization.

Big picture: The chaos in Newark cannot be appetizing for young star Zach Parise, who can become a restricted free agent at the end of this season and may already be examining the grass on the other side of the Devils’ broken-down fence.

2. Niemi disappoints in San Jose

So, still think Chicago GM Stan Bowman made the wrong call in walking away from an arbitrator's decision on a $2.75 million contract for netminder Antti Niemi? The San Jose Sharks quickly swooped in to pick up the Stanley Cup-winning goalie who became an unrestricted free agent when the Hawks declined to pay Niemi the awarded amount.

At the time of the signing, GM Doug Wilson cited Niemi as a key reason the Sharks were swept by Chicago in the Western Conference final. Would lightning strike twice for the long-suffering Sharks, who have never advanced to a Cup final let alone won a Stanley Cup, with Niemi in the fold? Well, so far it's been more charred rubble than lightning as Niemi has been a major disappointment through the first couple of weeks of the season.

Niemi has lost three straight and lasted just 8:36 on Sunday as the Calgary Flames poured three past him in less than half a period. Overall, Niemi’s numbers look like this: 1-3 record, .854 save percentage and 4.49 GAA. In short, it looks like Antero Niittymaki may end up winning the starting job in San Jose by default.

3. Shootout whining

Not quite sure we understand all the boo-hooing about the shootout. All of a sudden people realize it's a gimmick to decide a tie game? We like the new rule that gives more weight to games won in regulation and overtime when it comes to tie-breaking at the end of the season. But not sure about adding another layer of overtime as Detroit GM Ken Holland has suggested (four minutes of 3-on-3 following four minutes of 4-on-4). How is that not just a different kind of gimmick to get a result?

Interesting to note, however, that in spite of the complaint that teams somehow play for a shootout once a game gets to overtime, shootouts are way down this season and overtime goals way up. So much for that theory.

Through Sunday's games, there were just seven shootouts in the 26 games that went beyond regulation, meaning 19 overtime goals were scored. A year ago there were virtually the same number of games going to extra time (25) at this stage of the season but 18 of those games went to the hated (by some at least) shootout. Back in 2005-06, the first year the shootout was introduced, when you might have expected a plethora of shootouts, there were only 11 shootout games at this point in the season. Go figure.

4. Playoff teams troubled by power play

Interesting to note that among the five worst teams when it comes to power-play success (or lack thereof) this season, three of those squads were teams that qualified for the playoffs last year. Montreal ranks dead last this season with just one power-play goal on 24 opportunities, a surprise given how the Canadiens rode a hot power play to upsets of Washington and Pittsburgh in the playoffs after finishing with the second-ranked power-play unit during the regular season.

Problem-plagued New Jersey is 28th so far this season, and Phoenix is 27th. Both teams made their living off tight defensive play, so perhaps their poor power-play ranking isn't all that surprising. Florida and Dallas, both off to a great start, round out the bottom five when it comes to converting power-play opportunities thus far. Overall, those five teams have managed just five goals on 114 opportunities.

Of the five worst power-play teams at the end of last season, only Phoenix (28th overall) managed to qualify for the playoffs, which underscores the need to take pressure off team defense and goaltending by chipping in the odd power-play marker. At the other end of the spectrum, seven of the top 10 power-play units a year ago got invites to the playoff dance.

5. Hudler's readjustment period

One of the players we were interested in watching this season was Jiri Hudler, the skilled forward who was set to return from what head coach Mike Babcock jokingly referred to as his "European vacation" having played in the Kontinental Hockey League last season.

Both Babcock and GM Ken Holland told us they had high hopes for Hudler following his season in Russia, where he was asked to shoulder a more significant leadership and offensive role for Moscow Dynamo. So far, though, the readjustment to North American hockey has been a difficult one for Hudler. Playing mostly with Dan Cleary and Mike Modano, Hudler has yet to score and has just two assists. The line has combined for two goals and three assists and the three are a combined minus-16. Last week, Babcock told local reporters they had anticipated some adjustment period for Hudler but he needs the forward to compete harder for pucks.

Goalie controversy? No way, San Jose

September, 23, 2010
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It was late August when Doug Wilson called Antero Niittymaki into his office for a meeting.

The San Jose Sharks GM had quite the piece of news for Niittymaki: He was close to signing fellow Finnish netminder Antti Niemi.

"I said, 'You know what? This has just become available. Obviously, I made a commitment to you and signed you to a two-year deal. I will only do this if you bless it,'" Wilson, sitting in that same office Thursday, recalled to "And he was great about it. He said, 'This makes us a better team and you've got to do it.'"

And there, in a nutshell, is why there's reason to believe the goalie battle in San Jose won't turn into a distraction. For starters, Niittymaki appreciated the way Wilson included him in the process and didn't blindside him.

"It was a classy move by him," Niittymaki told on Thursday. "It was nice to give me a heads-up. It just shows that this is a first-class organization."

Niittymaki spent all of two months this summer as the unchallenged Sharks starter between his July 1 signing and Niemi's Sept. 2 acquisition. Many a goalie would have freaked out and had his agents jumping up and down Wilson's back. Not Niittymaki.

"It's part of the business," said Niittymaki, who fought for net time in his previous NHL stops in Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. "I'm not going to cry about it. You never know what's going to happen. You just have to deal with it. But it's good that it's a Finn, it really is. It makes it easier for both of us."

They're both Finns -- Niemi from Vantaa and Niittymaki from Turku. They didn't know each other, but have spent the past two weeks getting acquainted. Their dressing room stalls are side by side at the Sharks' practice facility.

"We're sitting next to each other and we're able to speak Finnish. It helps," Niemi told on Thursday.

"We've gotten to know each other a little bit," added Niittymaki. "He's a great guy like all the Finns are. I'm sure it's going to be fine. It's going to be a healthy competition."

As Chicago Blackhawks fans found out last season while he won them over en route to a Cup championship, Niemi is a man of few words. But his eyes widened when asked about the battle for net time and whether it would be a good vibe with both goalies pushing each other.

"I'm confident that's what will happen," Niemi said. "I think it's going to be a positive thing for both of us."

Things have settled down for Niemi after a drama-filled offseason. He was celebrating a Stanley Cup championship only to see Chicago dump him after his arbitration hearing. He had to scramble to find a new NHL job.

[+] EnlargeAntti Niemi
AP Photo/Kathy WillensAntti Niemi joined the Sharks after winning a Cup with the Hawks last season.
The 27-year-old needed a bit of time to digest it all.

"It took awhile, but I'm really happy to be here right now and excited about the season," Niemi said.

So, the question on every fantasy player's mind is how the playing time will be parceled out. Don't ask the head coach.

"The honest response is, I don't know," Todd McLellan told on Thursday. "I've told that to media people and they look at me like I'm from Mars. But we are figuring out what we have, how they fit in, how they respond in certain situations against certain opponents and that's going to take some time. The natural thought outside our locker room is alternate for a while and see what happens, but if somebody gets a hot hand, we might run with him for a while. If alternating is the thing we need to do, then we will."

Bottom line: Nothing is decided yet. Both goalies are new to the Sharks, so both will need time to adjust.

In the meantime, what about Thomas Greiss? The poor fellow from Germany was the backup here last season to Evgeni Nabokov, going 7-4-1 with a .911 save percentage and 2.69 goals-against average. Where does he fit in all of this? He would need to clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL, where, by the way, Alex Stalock won 39 games last season (the Sharks are high on him, too).

"We've managed three goalies before," said Wilson. "People forget we had Nabber and Kipper [Miikka Kiprusoff] and Vesa Toskala. You can manage it."

Because the Sharks begin the regular season in Europe, NHL rules allow them to carry an extra roster player until they return home. So that affords them extra time to carry three goalies.

Who knows what Wilson really has under his sleeve for Greiss (whether or not it's a trade), but after spending time here Thursday at Sharks camp, it seems clear the Sharks GM does not have a goaltender controversy on his hands. Niittymaki and Niemi want to make this thing work.

"What we like is that these are not entitled people," said Wilson. "They're used to battling for spots and competing. That's something we like all the way through our team."