SAN JOSE -- Antti Niemi needed only 18 seconds to show that he was on his game.

Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter had sneaked past the San Jose defense and was all alone heading straight for the Sharks goal with the puck on his stick. He took aim at the far side of the net for the first shot of Game 1, only to have Niemi get a piece of the puck. A quality scoring chance went nowhere.

"It was a pretty huge save," Sharks center James Sheppard said Friday. "That's a puck that could easily have went in, and that's 18 seconds into a series. So when I saw it, I was pretty happy. I knew he was going to be there -- not that I had any doubts."

Sheppard and his teammates might not have had any doubts, but others did. Niemi had faltered at times down the stretch, while rookie backup Alex Stalock was more consistent. Coach Todd McLellan added to the drama by not publicly naming his starter until game day, choosing to stick to his usual practice in somewhat unusual circumstances.

Thursday night, of course, Niemi rewarded his team's faith, stopping the first 19 shots he faced before giving up three goals in the third period after the Sharks had built a 5-0 lead. And none of those Los Angeles goals could be categorized as softies in what ended up as a 6-3 win for San Jose in the opener of the first-round Western Conference playoff series.

Niemi, too, recognized the importance of that first save -- especially when coupled with Joe Thornton's goal that enabled the Sharks to jump out to a 1-0 advantage less than three minutes later.

"It might be a way different game, yeah, for me and the team" if Carter had scored, Niemi said. "Would we have gotten a 3-1 lead? Nobody knows."

Niemi's most acrobatic save of the night came early in the second period, when he pushed off one post and slid across the goal mouth to frustrate Kings forward Tyler Toffoli after a pass from Dustin Brown. The score was already 3-0 at that point, but it showed the kind of agility that at times seemed to be missing from Niemi's game when he struggled.

"Brown had the puck and he's a shooter, so I'm thinking he might shoot," Niemi said. "He gives a wide pass, and I'm able to scoot over."

The media might have been fixated on which goalie McLellan would name, but Niemi -- who most likely knew a day or two in advance despite indicating he didn't -- showed no signs of stress and was even more lighthearted than usual.

He talked about how sometimes he and Stalock would have to text each other before a game to find out if either knew who was starting. Thursday he took the joke one step further when asked if he had to learn he was starting Game 1 from Stalock.

"I texted Al, Al texted Wayne," Niemi said, a reference to Wayne Thomas, who doubles as the Sharks goalies coach and assistant general manager.

In naming Niemi, McLellan said there was really no extended discussion among the coaching staff.

"He's our go-to guy. Simple as that," the coach said. "He has been our go-to guy for four years. I can tell you this, there wasn't near the amount of debate with the four of us in the coaches' room as there was with a whole bunch of you outside the coaches' room. But it was fun."

Whatever concerns might have existed about some of Niemi's recent performances had to be outweighed by the fact that he won the 2010 Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks and now has 57 games of NHL postseason experience. Stalock has none, though that could change quickly if Niemi does struggle later in the series.

McLellan said he didn't need to see Niemi's first save to feel good about his goaltender but acknowledged it was an important one. And he didn't fault his netminder for any of Los Angeles' comeback goals with the Kings outshooting San Jose 16-5 over the final 20 minutes.

Niemi didn't like giving up the goals, but he did like the timing.

"A couple lucky bounces, which I'd rather have happen with that score late than early," he said, adding that his confidence remained high throughout the game.

Niemi's teammates said they didn't need to see that first save or the 30 that followed to feel good about their goalie.

"We all believe in him every single night," Logan Couture said. "Every player goes through tough stretches. He went through a tough stretch this year, but we know what he can do."

For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PollakOnSharks.

SUNDAY'S GAME 2
L.A. at Sharks, 7 p.m., CSNCA, NBCSN (Sharks lead series, 1-0)

INSIDE
  • Sharks notebook: Game 1 portends physical series. PAGE 5
  • Series schedule. PAGE 5