NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks v. Sharks, Game 3: Niemi, not choke job, spells doom for Sharks

Niemi4.jpgEastern Conference Finals, Game 3, Final (OT)

Chicago
Blackhawks 3, San Jose Sharks 2

Blackhawks lead series 3-0

The San Jose Sharks had their collective hearts broken tonight.

Friday
night was easily the best they’ve performed against the Chicago
Blackhawks in this series, blasting 46 shots on goal and controlling
play for most of the third period when the game was initially on the
line. Unfortunately, they once again were met head on by the nearly
unstoppable force of Antti Niemi and the opportunistic offense of the
Chicago Blackhawks.

Dustin Byfuglien’s goal 12:44 into overtime
all but put the final dagger into the season of the San Jose Sharks as
the Blackhawks take a 3-0 lead in the series
. Now, we all know it’s not
exactly impossible for the Sharks to come back after we witnessed what
the Flyers did against the Bruins, but I doubt we get to see history
made twice in the same season.

Now the popular dig will be to
speak about how the San Jose Sharks have ‘choked’ in this series,
especially considering their past performances in the playoffs. This
season it’s different as in the past the Sharks had never faced a team
quite like the Chicago Blackhawks, one that is deeper and more talented
than they are and a team that is supremely confident in every facet of
the game.

The Sharks did not choke in this game nor have they
choked in this series. In fact, the Sharks have played as well as you
could expect them to play against a team as great as the Hawks.
Unfortunately Antti Niemi has been there all series long, raising his
play to incredible levels in each successive game and no more so than he
did tonight. During a game that Evgeni Nabokov finally decided enough
was enough and he’d play like the shutdown goaltender his team needed to
be, this loss was made all the more painful by the ever spectacular
saves by Niemi on the other end of the ice.

The Chicago Blackhawks
were blasted by the media, and some fans, for not doing more leading up
to the trade deadline to shore up their goaltending woes. Despite
possessing the best team goals-against average in the NHL, the
goaltenders were near the bottom of the pack in save percentage and most
thought that neither Cristobal Huet nor Antti Niemi would cut it in the
playoffs. After the deadline came and went, and the Blackhawks blew
several big games due to horrendous goaltending, some claimed the Hawks
had made a terrible mistake and that a promising season was doomed.

Yet
as the regular season came to a close, Antti Niemi was named the
defacto goaltender for the Blackhawks in the playoffs, as the team
turned it’s back on high-priced disappointment Huet in favor of a
goaltender who was in just his first full season of NHL action. Signed
as a free agent out of Finland in 2008, Niemi was never expected to be
the savior in net that he’s become.

Niemi had been solid for the Blackhawks in the first two rounds,
but it wasn’t until they truly needed him to be spectacular that he
truly stepped it up against the Sharks.

Stopping 44-of-46 shots, Niemi exhibited incredible confidence,
agility and concentration – a performance the Blackhawks haven’t had in
net in the playoffs perhaps since 1991. He was masterful in tracking the
puck and when the Sharks put the pressure on the Hawks in the third
period and finally started to try and get Niemi moving laterally across
the crease. The Blackhawks should, in fact, feel fortunate Niemi is playing as well as he is after allowing an incredibly high amount of shots in two out of three games.

“Antti made every big stop for us over
four periods,” said Blackhawks wing Kris Versteeg.
“We relied on him too much tonight, but his great play is becoming kind
of
typical.”

Coach Quenneville was even more glowing over his goaltender’s performance after the game.

“I thought our goalie, you can use any adjective, but the best
superlative to describe his performance tonight, great or spectacular
was deserving. I think we rode on that, particularly even in overtime.”

For the most part, the Sharks had been forced to keep
their offensive attack to the perimeter and generally found most of
their shots coming from straight ahead. With a team that is able to
block shots and get back on defense as well as the Hawks, having Niemi
play as sharp as he was was the perfect frustration for the Sharks.
After the Blackhawks were able to tie the game after the Sharks took the
lead in the 2nd period, and then controlled play after that, you could
have expected the Sharks to perhaps fold under the frustration and
disappointment of losing yet another lead.

Instead, the Sharks responded with their best period of the series,
outshooting the Blackhawks 18-6 in the 3rd and drawing three penalties
to give them multiple chance to take a late lead. Unfortunately, the
stellar play of Niemi kept the Sharks off the board and it was none
other than Dave Bolland that provided the counterattack dagger that the
Blackhawks are known so well for.

Bolland has been instrumental in shutting down Joe Thornton all
series long, and made up for taking a dumb penalty with a breakaway goal
to give the Hawks a 2-1 lead with seven minutes remaining in
regulation. Choking? Not quite. The Sharks instantly responded by no
longer playing it safe and started crashing the net, taking advantage of
a late icing call to tie the game off a Patrick Marleau rebound goal.

The Sharks dug down deep and tied the game after allowing one of the
most painful goals of the season; they had failed to score on a
multitude of chances, controlled play and yet found themselves down a
goal late in the game. This is where the Sharks typically fall apart and
instead they pressed harder until finally solving the mystery that is
Antti Niemi.

In overtime the Blackhawks exerted their control once more over the
Hawks, and only some incredible saves by Evgeni Nabokov kept the game
from ending it earlier than it did. Eventually, it was one major
defensive gaffe that might have truly spelled disaster for the Sharks’
season.

Perhaps because it was Dave Bolland, and perhaps it’s because of
everything he’d put the Sharks through, but nearly every Sharks player
on the ice followed the puck on Bolland’s stick behind the ice and
somehow forgot about the very large and very skilled Byfuglien sneaking
his way in from the point. Even Nabokov, who had played so well up to
this point, failed to recognize the play that was developing. Yet it’s
Dany Heatley, acquired to be a difference maker, that made the biggest
mistake of all. He lost Byfuglien, his man to cover, who scored such a
quick goal off the pass from behind the net that Nabokov never reacted
until the puck was already in the net.

So now the Sharks will face another round of questions, ones that
look for answers when it comes to performance, production from the top
players, and whether this team has the heart to pull off what the Flyers
did just last week. Yet when the Sharks look back, they’ll be able to
say at least they really tried this time and the effort was always
there; this wasn’t a choke job, they just picked the wrong time to face
Antti Niemi.

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    WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning – Game 6

    PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 22:  Tyler Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning collides with Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 22, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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    Tonight could be the final game of the Eastern Conference Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. You can catch Game 6 via the NBC Sports Group’s television and digital platforms.

    Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay (8:00 p.m. ET)

    The television broadcast of Game 6 is on NBCSN. To stream the game using the NBC Sports Live Extra app, click here. The Bolts lead the series 3-2.

    Here’s some relevant reading material to get you ready for tonight’s game:

    Malkin guaranteed a Penguins win in Game 6

    Lightning coach doesn’t seem flustered by Malkin’s guarantee

    Kucherov continues to be clutch for the Bolts this postseason

    Marc-Andre Fleury: ‘I should have been better’ in Game 5

    Will Ward be back with Carolina? Francis discusses ‘interesting summer’

    NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 29:  Cam Ward #30 of the Carolina Hurricanes skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 29, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Hurricanes 3-2.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    Honestly, if you look at Cam Ward‘s numbers, it’s difficult to imagine the Carolina Hurricanes signing him to another contract.

    (Unless perhaps you just keep circling “Stanley Cup: 1.”)

    His numbers have been putrid by just about any metric, especially if you look at the numbers he generated since signing the bloated $37.8 million deal that is set to expire.

    Maybe the Hurricanes are just going through the media motions in appearing open-minded about bring back Ward, but GM Ron Francis indicated that it’s under consideration in discussing Carolina’s off-season with the News & Observer.

    “We’re still looking at that,” Francis said. “We plan to meet in early June to see where we’re at.”

    More details:

    Francis said “term and money” would be the key elements of the contract discussions – that is, the length of contract and salary being proposed. At the same time, Francis said the Canes would evaluate free agents or possibly goalies who might be available in a trade.

    Teams play things pretty close-to-the-vest, but how would Hurricanes fans feel about Ward coming back? What kind of price would be palatable?

    Here’s a list of potential free agent goalies if you want to pass some time pondering such questions.

    Stanley Cup Final to begin Monday

    NHL_2016_StanleyCupPlayoffs
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    We don’t know who’s in or where it will begin, but we do know this — the 2016 Stanley Cup Final will begin next Monday.

    From the league:

    The National Hockey League today announced the schedule of dates for the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, which will begin on Monday, May 30. Additionally, Stanley Cup Final Media Day will be Sunday, May 29, in the host city for Game 1.

    The Stanley Cup Final will match the winner of the Eastern Conference Final, either the Pittsburgh Penguins or Tampa Bay Lightning, against the winner of the Western Conference Final, either the St. Louis Blues or San Jose Sharks.

    The club which earned the greater number of points in the 2015-16 regular season standings will have home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Final and will host Games 1, 2 and, if necessary, Games 5 and 7. The other club will host Games 3 and 4 and, if necessary, Game 6. The Blues collected 107 points during the regular season, most among the remaining teams, followed by the Penguins (104), Sharks (98) and Lightning (97).

    The start time for all Stanley Cup Final games will be 8 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Group has exclusive coverage of the Final in the U.S., while CBC and TVA Sports have exclusive coverage throughout Canada.

    2016 STANLEY CUP FINAL SCHEDULE
    (all start times 8 p.m., ET)

    Game 1 Monday, May 30
    Game 2 Wednesday, June 1
    Game 3 Saturday, June 4
    Game 4 Monday, June 6
    Game 5* Thursday, June 9
    Game 6* Sunday, June 12
    Game 7* Wednesday, June 15

    This marks the first time the Stanley Cup Final will begin in May since 2012, when the Kings took on the Devils in New Jersey (on the 30th).

    L.A. went on to capture that series in five games, wrapping things up on June 11.

    After two years in Switzerland, Tom Pyatt signs with Sens

    PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 22:  Tom Pyatt #11 of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Simon Despres #47 of the Pittsburgh Penguins battle for a loose puck during the game at Consol Energy Center on March 22, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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    Tom Pyatt is back in the NHL.

    Or, at least, back with an NHL organization.

    After spending the last two seasons with Swiss club Geneve Servette, the 29-year-old forward has signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Ottawa Senators.

    “We’re very pleased that Tom has committed to our organization for next season,” said GM Pierre Dorion in a release. “He has already accumulated a significant amount of experience at both the American and National Hockey League levels and provides us with solid depth at forward. Having spent his last two seasons playing professionally in Switzerland, members of our coaching staff are familiar with his versatility. We’re looking forward to seeing him in training camp.”

    The Sens, of course, just hired a head coach in Guy Boucher who’s spent the last few years in Switzerland. (Also, an assistant coach.)

    Pyatt’s deal is worth $800,000 in the NHL and $200,000 in the AHL.

    Before leaving for Switzerland in August of 2014, Pyatt played 245 NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning, scoring 27 goals and 27 assists.