The Anaheim Ducks successfully defended their 2012-13 Pacific Division title in the 2013-14 NHL season by beating the last back-to-back champion Wed., April 9. The San Jose Sharks were champions from 2007-08 through 2010-11.
San Jose was also the last team with a chance to knock out Anaheim. That ended thanks to a terrible performance by Antti Niemi more than a bad one by the team or a good one by the opposition.
Niemi was maybe the greatest goalie in the world during 2013. Once the calendar flipped to 2014 in his native Finland—unfortunate for the Sharks because he played when it was still New Year's Eve in Anaheim—he has been unreliable.
His ability to keep winning (17-10-1 in 29 games) and maintain a respectable 2.48 goals-against average (GAA) are more of a testament to San Jose's defensive prowess than Niemi's play. His .910 save percentage (sv%) is pedestrian and while he has had two shutouts (one with 41 saves), he has been pulled from four games while saving under one in 10 shots in 14 of 29 games.
Perhaps when Alex Stalock replaced Niemi in the second period, it was on the depth chart as well as the ice.
Stalock is 11-5-2 during the 2013-14 NHL season that included his first career start at the highest level (he had played in three games), with a .929 sv% and 1.91 GAA. He has saved at least nine of every 10 shots in 12 of his 17 starts.
At this time of the year, it is not about what someone has done or how much he wants to perform well—neither can really be questioned when a Vezina Trophy finalist three years removed from a Stanley Cup has Niemi's work habits. No one stands more accountable in post-game interviews while treating someone that has no experience doing what he does like he or she is important.
Now that the Sharks know they play the Pacific Division-rival Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, they also know they will not be able to overcome play like Niemi gave them Wednesday. All three of the goals were soft.
San Jose jumped out to a lead in the final two minutes of a very competitive first period. Joe Pavelski corralled a bouncing puck and sent it across the slot for a pinching Jason Demers, who got control of it and scored the wrist-shot goal to bring him to five on the season.
Then Niemi broke the team's back by allowing a covered Corey Perry to put a one-handed, five-hole backhand shot in the net from a sharp angle in the final two seconds, giving assists to Matt Beleskey and Francois Beauchemin. There was no change of position on the shot or tricky bounce, no movement was required that would indicate possible injury...just a fundamental lack of positioning.
Over three minutes into the third, Mathieu Perrault won a faceoff in Anaheim's offensive zone and Teemu Selanne got a shot off that Scott Hannan blocked. Niemi was slow to react to Patrick Maroon scooping it up behind the net, leaving the door open for the wrap-around goal.
Logan Couture was able to even the score under four minutes later. He scooped up a Beauchemin giveaway and scored a sharp-angle wrist-shot goal through traffic.
Niemi allowed another five-hole goal on the next shot he faced 2:12 later, and coach Todd McLellan had seen enough. While this score happened while he was moving to cover an odd-man rush, he was there but failed to stop Maroon's second score of the game.
Stalock faced just 10 shots the rest of the way, and probably could have left less room to the stick-side post on Beleskey's goal scored in the final four minutes of the second (Perry and Ryan Getzlaf got the assists). He was pulled with over two minutes to go, but the Sharks could not score again; Andrew Colgiano advanced the puck to Jakob Silfverberg for the empty-net goal with 1:38 to go.
The game statistics show that San Jose was the better team everywhere but the net. Possession statistics were even (one less faceoff win, one more takeaway and the same number of giveaways), but Anaheim had eight more hits because of facing eight more shots and attempts yet still blocked two fewer—barely over two-thirds as many per shot allowed and below 80 percent as many of the attempts faced.
The Sharks cannot dwell on missing the Pacific Division title. They still have a chance to catch two potential opponents in the Western Conference. If they fail, the best home team in the NHL over the past two seasons is probably only going to have home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The question is, who will be in net? They play back-to-back games Friday and Saturday, so each goalie will likely get one appearance. Maybe that will determine the starter for the Stanley Cup playoffs, maybe they will stick with Niemi or maybe that spot already belongs to Stalock.
Thanks to poor net-minding Wednesday, the Pacific Division champion Ducks had all of Examiner.com's three stars of this game...