The San Jose Sharks are feeling the heat after watching their 3-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Kings shrink to 3-2. That may have something to do with the Sharks choosing to start Alex Stalock over Antti Niemi in net for Game 6 Monday night.
Niemi has struggled mightily over his last two games, getting yanked from both Game 4 and Game 5. His save percentage has dipped to an unsightly .882 in five postseason appearances. Stalock, meanwhile, has looked solid in relief, stopping all 26 shots he's seen after spelling Niemi in Games 4 and 5.
There is a wide gap in experience between Niemi, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, and Stalock, who has never started a playoff game in the NHL. In fact, Stalock hasn't started a playoff game of any kind since 2010, when he made 11 appearances for the Worcester Sharks in the AHL's postseason.
The 26-year-old was sensational in 24 games this season, posting a .932 save percentage and 1.87 goals-against average to the tune of a 12-5-2 record. He also collected two shutouts.
Should this change in net pay off in Game 6, it will be interesting to see where the Sharks go from here. Niemi hasn't looked overly great in any of his five starts, but the Sharks are still just one win away from advancing.
For Stalock, his first start comes in a potential clinching game against a battle-tested team on their ice riding high after staving off elimination twice so far. That's going to be a baptism by fire. A strong performance could earn him another start, though.
The Sharks also have to deal with the loss of top defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic for Game 6. He was knocked out of Game 5 by an awkward hit from Jarret Stoll. Vlasic has not participated in any of the team's practices since the hit.
Vlasic plays tough minutes and has become an excellent shutdown defender. He has three points in five games as well.
Matt Irwin will draw into the lineup for Vlasic. Irwin did appear in 62 games this year, posting 19 points and a plus-5 rating.
So that's another instance where there's a little less protection for Stalock in his first start. The Sharks will have to hope Vlasic's injury doesn't linger as he is an important piece to their team and their Stanley Cup hopes in general.
This Game 6 is shaping up to be a doozy. If the Kings can take advantage of an inexperienced goaltender and slightly weakened defense, we'll be looking at a Game 7 and one of the craziest first-round series to date.