If you’re coaching a decisive playoff game where your job hangs in the balance, I’d imagine you’d want to know and have confidence in who your starting goalie is.
Todd McLellan won’t have that luxury.
By starting rookie Alex Stalock in a Game 6 loss to Los Angeles, McLellan opened the door of uncertainty for a rookie without any playoff experience. Granted, Stalock had a .932 save percentage in 24 games this season, but a Cory Schneider/Roberto Luongo situation this was not. You have to keep going with your Stanley Cup winning, Vezina Trophy finalist.
But by turning to Stalock in Game 6, there is no clear choice for Game 7.
In his corner, Stalock has a 1-0 regular season loss to Los Angeles, in which he made 20 saves. He had a pretty good outing in Game 6 against the Kings, too, stopping 26 of 30 shots and allowing one very controversial goal. The Sharks team around him fell apart after that goal and there’s no telling if Niemi, who had been pulled in Games 4 and 5, would have fared any better. In this series, Stalock has a .929 save percentage; Niemi’s .882 is worse than Jonathan Quick’s.
Now we go into Game 7 with two goalies who have combined to lose three straight: one is a struggling veteran, the other an unpredictable rookie.
The decision will be doubly hard for McLellan. Not only does he have to give his team its best chance at winning the series, he also has to make a call that his future will rest on. A Game 7 loss by the Sharks would put the coach squarely in the hot seat after six years of failing to get over the hump. With newly signed Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s windows of optimal form gradually closing, another early exit would dial up the urgency in the organization even further and create the perfect storm for a coaching change. The core of players currently in place are the guys the Sharks will live and die by – that’s not where the shakeup will come.
So, as coach with your job on the line, do you go with the rookie who has the better numbers of late, but who is coming off an emotional loss and could easily succumb to the pressure a Game 7 brings? Or, like the Kings did with Quick after falling behind 3-0, do you go with the sagging vet and bet that he’s the one who will pull through at a pinnacle moment? Both have their pros and cons. Whatever you do, you’re rolling the dice.
Barring an injury we don’t know about, I go with Niemi and the knowledge I’m putting the best players on the ice.
Who would you go with?