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(TODD KOROL)
(TODD KOROL)

NHL Notebook

The NHL's new goaltending model Add to ...

San Jose coach Todd McLellan is one of those pleasing truth tellers, which accounts for his soaring popularity among the players, even when things are just drifting along, as they are for his Sharks' team in the early going.

And so when McLellan is asked about his team's two-headed goalie monster - the sound-alike Finns, Antti Niemi and Antero Nittymaki - he is blunt about his plans, such as they are.

"I really don't have a plan, to tell you the truth," said McLellan. Okay, that stopped me in my tracks for a moment, or until he had a chance to go on. "We're going to play for a little while and we're going to see how the guys adapt and adjust. That's why we have 82 games. We get to figure it out as we go along.

"I'm sure when playoffs arrive, and if we're lucky enough to qualify, then we'll have a good idea of who we want to start with. But along the way, we'll build enough confidence in the other guy to be able to turn and use him."

McLellan didn't add the word "hopefully" to the last sentence , but that appears to be his expectation - that by seasons end, both will hopefully have found their respective strides on a Sharks' team with its eyes firmly on the Stanley Cup prize.

San Jose is one of a handful of NHL teams exploring that new, rotating goaltender dynamic, popularized by both the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers on the way to last year's collision in the Stanley Cup final.

Niemi is the far better known of San Jose's two netminders, largely because he took the Blackhawks where the Sharks have failed to go these past half-dozen years - all the way to the winner's circle last year with Chicago. And in the NHL's game of musical goaltenders that followed this past summer, where the Blackhawks severed ties with both of their goalies, the Sharks took on Niemi so that he could job share with Nittymaki, and in the process, save the San Joses a pile of salary-cap dollars.

It is a model adopted by a number of teams with varying degrees of success thus far this season - to find an unknown somewhere and roll the dice.

The Nashville Predators believe their current goaltending duo - of Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback - is the tallest in NHL history. One is 6-4, the other 6-5 and they have both been key parts of the Predators' fast start (Nashville didn't lose its first game in regulation until Thursday night, a 3-0 defeat to the St. Louis Blues). The Blues happen to be the NHL's top defensive team at the moment, thanks in part to ex-Hab Jaroslav Halak, who has been everything St. Louis hoped for in a starter.

Halak was the NHL's second star of the week, even before recording the shutout win over the Predators. The only reason hardcore Hab fans aren't lamenting Halak's strong start (1.55 GAA, two shutouts) is that Carey Price appears to have been right all along - the Canadiens weren't about to win or lose the Stanley Cup in the first exhibition game of the season. Everybody is chilling in Montreal, as per Price's direction.

Meanwhile, last year's top defensive team, the New Jersey Devils, is jockeying with Atlanta, Anaheim and Colorado for the worst defensive record in the game, with long-time stalwart Martin Brodeur off to a tough start.

Last year's top individual performer, the Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask, the only goalie with 45 or more appearances to finish with a GAA under 2.00, is at an underwhelming 3.53 today. He can't get back between the pipes because Tim Thomas, the Vezina Trophy winner two years ago who was on the bench for much of last year, has bounced back in a big meaningful way. Thomas lowered his eye-popping GAA to 0.60 after shutting out the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night.

But back to the Sharks, a team that qualified for the Western Conference final last year riding mostly Evgeni Nabokov, who has since taken up residence in Russia's KHL.

McLellan has some experience with this new goaltending model, having seen it first hand in his final year with Detroit, where he was an assistant on Mike Babcock's coaching staff. For years, the Red Wings saved money in goal so they could spend it on position players - and in the '08 playoffs, when starter Dominik Hasek faltered, they switched to the nominal back-up Chris Osgood and won it all.

"I've experienced it and the experience I had with it allowed us to win the Stanley Cup," said McLellan. "Obviously, having Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood was a luxury, especially in today's day and age, with the way the salary cap affects it. We were lucky to have that; we needed to make a change halfway through the Nashville series and it allowed us to win.

"In some of our other years in the league, you rode a single guy and then didn't maybe have the confidence as a coach - or the confidence in the back-up goaltender - to do it.

"We're hoping this year to develop that ability to flip flop."

Translation: Niemi (4.49 GAA) will get back in eventually, but for now, it looks as if they'll ride Nittymaki's hot hand (1.84 GAA) for as long as they can.

GREEN ON THE MEND?: Capitals' defenceman Mike Green returned to the line-up Wednesday night after missing time with a shoulder injury. Green has been the NHL's scoring leader among defencemen in each of the past two seasons (and is the only defenceman in that time to score more than 70 points), but he was off to a slow start, even before the injury, after ceding some of his usual power-play time to rookie John Carlson. When Green set up Alex Ovechkin for a goal Thursday night late in a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild, it marked only his second point of the season.

KUDOS: To my colleague and friend Jim Kelley who along with Russian scoring star Alex Mogilny were elected this week to the Buffalo Sabres' Hall of Fame. Kelley has been the key hockey voice in the Buffalo community for decades now, while Mogilny recorded his spectacular 76-goal season with the 1992-93 edition of the Sabres. Mogilny's season has been in the news lately, because there hasn't been a 70-goal scorer in the league since that season (Teemu Selanne also managed the feat as a rookie with the Winnipeg Jets). Mario Lemieux came the closest, getting to 69 in both 92-93 and in 1995-96. With eight goals in nine games, and coming off a 51-goal season last year, Tampa's Steve Stamkos looks as if he might be the next player to crack the 60-goal barrier, something that's only been done once in the past 13 years, by Alex Ovechkin (65 goals) in the '08 season. Stamkos had eight goals in his first nine games; the early-season leader was the Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp, who had nine in 10 games. Sharp's previous career high was the 36 he managed in 07-08.

THE STEWARTS ARRIVE: Anybody else see Colorado's Chris Stewart emerging as the NHL's No. 2 scorer a month into the season. Anyone? No? Me neither. But Stewart, the younger brother of Atlanta's Anthony Stewart, is at eight goals, following a hat trick against Calgary and a shaky back-up netminder Henrik Karlsson Thursday night. With Anthony at four goals and counting for the Thrashers, it means the Stewart brothers are actually out-scoring the Sedin twins this year - 12 goals compared to seven, all of which have been scored by Daniel Sedin. Henrik, last year's Art Ross trophy winner, is at zero goals, after scoring 29 last year, but remains one of the top set-up men in the league, which is why the Sedins have 23 points between them this year, two ahead of the Stewarts at 21. Long-term, the only way the Stewarts keep the race close is if Anthony can finally settle in as an NHL top-six forward, after years of playing on the fringes. Chris Stewart, meantime, has star quality written all over him.

JUMBO ALERT: A final thought on the Sharks and their captain Joe Thornton, who produced the second five-point game of his career against the Devils this week, which vaulted him into a seven-way tie for fourth place in the NHL scoring standings, with 12 points.

Thornton is back playing with Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, the team's No. 1 line for much of last season, which MacLellan had split up in the exhibition season and early going, in an effort to get more scoring balance.

But with the Sharks virtually unable to score at even strength, McLellen went back to putting all of his scoring eggs in two baskets - and it's worked pretty well ever since.

McLellan is a big-time Thornton booster, and probably had a lot to do with his being named team captain at the start of the year, when most of the smart money had it down to either Dan Boyle or Joe Pavelski. But McLellan canvassed everybody with an informed opinion on the matter - including last year's captain Rob Blake - and Thornton emerged as the first choice.

It is Thornton's second turn as captain, after having that responsibility in Boston, before the Bruins ran him out of town.

According to McLellan, Thornton's easy-going, happy-go-lucky personality, gives people the wrong first impression about just how much his new captain cares about hockey, and wanting to win.

"I think Joe is misunderstood," said McLellan. "I really believe Joe Thornton is misunderstood outside the hockey world.

"He's a passionate guy. He snaps. He's hard on himself. He's hard on his teammates at the right times. Yet when you get to spend time with him he has such a passion and enjoys being around the rink so much that that comes out.

"I think that passion and love for the game and being in the locker room and being with the guys is misunderstood as being aloof and not caring - and it's the exact opposite. It is caring. It's being at the rink and wanting to be around the guys. If he could move (his wife) and the little one to the rink and have an apartment there, he'd be happy. That's where he wants to be."

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