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Antti Niemi seeks series win, restored faith from his coach with Game 7 start

Sharks to start Niemi in goal for Game 7
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San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi reacts after Los Angeles Kings right wing Justin Williams's goal during the second period in Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series in Los Angeles, Thursday, April 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Todd McLellan's decision to start Alex Stalock over Antti Niemi for the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 had the stench of a panic move. 

That's because, in many ways, it was. Contrast McLellan opting to yank Niemi after two disastrous outings with Darryl Sutter going right back in Jonathan Quick in Game 3, and then again in Game 4, and it's easy to see why many feel the Kings never panicked and the Sharks did. 

(Of note: if the Sharks played in San Francisco instead of San Jose, I could call it "Panic! At the Frisco", but instead all I can do is say "Panic! Near the Frisco", and that's nowhere near as good, so I won't even bother.)

But on the other hand, McLellan's decision to start Stalock wasn't simply based on two games. It goes back to the before the series began, when Niemi struggled down the stretch, including a mercy-pull versus the Anaheim Ducks in what had to be his worst start of the year.

That was the last straw for McLellan, who wasn't just being coy about his starter for Game 1 versus the Kings. Thanks in large part to the way Niemi played in the 5-2 road loss, he actually did consider going with Stalock. 

In the end, McLellan came to his senses and went with Niemi for Game 1, but one suspects his confidence never fully returned. As tempting as it is to view the decision to start Stalock in Game 6 in a vaccuum, it wasn't simply motivated by the two losses that preceded it. McLellan's been unsure on Niemi for awhile now, and after pulling him in consecutive games, he'd seen enough.

But after Stalock failed to stop the bleeding in Game 6, McLellan will be going back to Niemi for Game 7. As he explained to the assembled media, the move to Stalock wasn't just motivated by the team needing a chance. There were things in Niemi's game the coaching staff didn't like. From CSN Bay Area:

“I think the break was good for Nemo. He got a chance to work on some things in his game that the goaltending coaches wanted to work [on],” Todd McLellan said. “He got a little chance to rest. Our team needed a change heading into Game 6 in L.A.

“We unfortunately had to pull him twice. That wasn’t all on Nemo’s shoulders, it’s pretty evident and pretty obvious. I hope I’ve made that clear. But, moving forward with Nemo, we want to give Nemo an opportunity.”

If Niemi wasn't motivated enough going into Game 7, the fact that he's battling not just to win the series, but to re-win the trust of his coach will probably help. 

This is a huge chance for redemption. 

If Niemi can shut the door in Game 7 and stop this epic playoff collapse from coming to fruition, it'll go a long way towards winning the trust of his coach heading into Anaheim -- fitting, since that's where he left it.

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