San Jose will likely need another solid season from its Finnish goaltender if it is going to reach the finals for the first time.
Niemi is expected to return from a knee injury and make his season debut Monday night when the Sharks host an Anaheim Ducks team trying to extend its winning streak to four with a second victory in this Pacific Division rivalry in four days.
Niemi, who helped Chicago sweep San Jose in the 2010 Western Conference finals en route to winning a Stanley Cup, saw his first season with the Sharks end with a 3-2, double-overtime loss in Vancouver on May 24. Niemi, who went 35-18-6 with a 2.38 goals-against average in the regular season and started all 18 playoff contests, had won his previous six playoff series prior to getting eliminated by the Canucks in five games.
"It feels terrible," he said.
Niemi figured to be the Sharks' No. 1 goaltender again after signing a four-year extension in March, but he hasn't played since getting a cyst removed from his knee before training camp. After backing up Thomas Greiss in each of the last two games including a 1-0 loss Friday at Anaheim, coach Todd McLellan will likely turn to Niemi Monday.
Niemi went 2-1-0 with a 2.01 GAA versus the Ducks last season.
The Sharks (1-2-0), who opened 1-2-1 last season and fell as low 12th in the West in January before rallying for their fourth straight Pacific Division title, could use a lift after dropping their second in a row Saturday, 4-2 to visiting St. Louis.
"We didn't make a lot of mistakes,'' McLellan said. "But we made enough for them to score.''
Finding the back of the net has been a problem for the Sharks' top four returning scorers - Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe and captain Joe Thornton - who have one goal between them, and none since Clowe scored in the season opener, a 6-3 victory over Phoenix on Oct. 8.
The Ducks (3-1-0) had received no production from their top line of Bobby Ryan, reigning Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry and captain Ryan Getzlaf until Sunday's 4-2 victory over the Blues. Ryan scored twice with an assist, Perry added a goal for the club's first in 16 power-play chances and Getzlaf set up two scores.
"We knew we would score eventually,'' coach Randy Carlyle said. "But the longer you go, the more the pressure mounts and guys start squeezing their sticks."
While the Ducks are coming off their highest scoring output of the young season, their defense has been consistently solid during their three-game winning streak, allowing three total goals.
Goaltender Jonas Hiller can take much of the credit for that. After playing just 83 minutes following his first All-Star game appearance in 2010-11 due to a bout of vertigo, Hiller has turned away 94 of 101 shots while starting each game of the new season for Anaheim .
He made 31 saves Friday for his 12th career shutout, improving to 4-0 with a 1.64 GAA in his last five starts against the Sharks.
The Ducks, though, have just one win in regulation in their last 10 games in San Jose.