Hey everybody, remember hockey? Well it's back! Tonight the Sharks play the hated, stinky, ugly Chicago Blackhawks, and the big story aside from dreams of avenging the Sharks' frustrating playoff exit from last season is the possibility of Antti Niemi starting in goal against his former team.
Will Niemi start? Todd McLellan won't tell anyone, but he says the goalies already know.
Those who believe Niemi should get the start use two main arguments:
1) He'll have an advantage against shooters on his former team, since he knows them well from practice.
2) He's really motivated and wants to play, so he'll play really well.
I, respectfully, think both of these reasons are insane.
Let's start with point #1 first: the idea that, in a match-up of a goalie and his former team, the goalie has the advantage. The media asked a few of the Blackhawks players about this, and while several of them didn't want to give a detailed answer, Patrick Kane said:
"I think the advantage is always to the goalie, but if you shoot on a guy enough, you figure out where you’re going to shoot on him in practice to try and score."
The first part is clearly just Kane being humble and modest and setting up low expectations, but he reveals his true feelings in the second part: by shooting on a guy a lot in practice you learn his style and you learn how to beat him. Sure, hypothetically Niemi could have learned the tendencies of different players too, but the greater advantage has to be with the shooters. Playing goal, especially in a real game scenario, rather than practice, is so heavily reliant on quick reactions and instinct that by the time Niemi would be able to recognize the player who has the puck and adjust his positioning accordingly the puck could have been passed, shot, deflected, or taken away.
It's much easier for the 18 skaters on a team to adjust to a goalie's tendencies then it is for that goalie to adjust to each of the individual players who may have the puck during the game. The only time Niemi's knowledge of Blackhawks shooters might come into play in any significant fashion would be a breakaway or shootout, and I guarantee that Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews know more than enough about Niemi to cancel out any advantage he might gain.
In summary: the idea of starting Niemi because he knows the Blackhawks and will therefore have an advantage against them is stupid.
Moving on to point #2, that Niemi has a lot of motivation to prove himself against the team that let him walk after he helped them win the Stanley Cup...yeah, I guess it's true he might be extra keyed-up for this game, but is that a good thing? Do we want an angry goalie out for vengeance? An angry skater might hit harder or skate faster, but what's an angry goalie going to do? Glove-save harder?
I'm dubious of the impact of Niemi's motivation on his play, especially since, so far this season, he's supposedly been motivated to want to gain the Sharks starting job. I mean, that was the idea, right? We'd have these two goalies so they'd push each other and play better? It certainly hasn't worked with Niemi so far. He's been better lately, and I think he should still be getting a fair number of starts, but I don't think playing the Blackhawks is going to be some magic elixir to make him into a better player.
Plus, isn't Niemi supposed to be a professional athlete? Shouldn't he be giving his all every night, regardless of the team he's facing? If the Blackhawks are the only team he cares enough about to try to defeat, then what the hell good is he for 99% of the year?
In closing, don't start Niemi tonight. The negatives outweigh the positives, and the Sharks need a win badly. Antero Niittymaki is the better goalie right now, and deserves to start against a major western conference opponent.
Prediction: Nitty gets it done, and the Sharks win 3-0. Goals by Thornton, Setoguchi, and Clowe.