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.

Scroll Down For:

    Goalie nods: Backups battle as Kinkaid faces Enroth

    Los Angeles Kings goalie Jhonas Enroth, of Sweden, deflects a shot off the stick of a Colorado Avalanche player in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
    AP
    Leave a comment

    The New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings prefer to lean on workhorse goalies Cory Schneider and Jonathan Quick respectively, but Sunday presents a change of pace.

    In the Kings’ case, Jhonas Enroth is playing in part because of (what Los Angeles hopes is) a minor injury to Quick.

    It’s true that the under-sized goalie sports a mediocre 4-4-1 record, but he’s given the Kings legitimate chances to win games considering his impressive (especially for a backup) save percentage of .925. Perhaps he can earn a few more reps if he plays well in what may be a tight game?

    Speaking of earning more reps, Keith Kinkaid must continue to work to prove that he’s able to make the jump from AHL goalie to at least an NHL backup. The Kings aren’t likely to make it easy for him, either.

    Elsewhere …

    Avalanche at Sabres: Semyon Varlamov vs. Robin Lehner

    Bruins at Red Wings: Possibly Tuukka Rask vs. Petr Mrazek

    Blues at Lightning: Best guess – Brian Elliott vs. Ben Bishop

    Flyers at Rangers: Steve Mason vs. (possibly) Henrik Lundqvist

    Fight video: Someone other than Evander Kane beats up Alex Petrovic

    2 Comments

    Bummed out on this holiday? Look on the bright side: at least you’re not as sore as Florida Panthers defenseman Alex Petrovic likely is right now.

    Not long after suffering three defeats at the hands/fists of Evander Kane, Petrovic likely lost another bout to Nashville Predators tough guy Anthony Bitetto.

    (Note: some might consider this more of a draw, for what it’s worth. You can watch that latest fight in the video above.)

    Hey, at least Bitetto didn’t taunt Petrovic after their fight …

    It was a rough night for the Panthers overall, as they suffered a gruesome injury or two and fell to the Predators by a score of 5-0.

    Outdoor game rumors: Jets host Oilers, Red Wings at Maple Leafs

    The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings face off during the first period of the Winter Classic outdoor NHL hockey game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
    AP
    3 Comments

    Love is in the air on Valentine’s Day, and so are rumors about hockey fans bundling up for outdoor games next season.

    Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman went over two possible outdoor matchups coming for 2016-17 during Saturday’s Headlines segment.

    A smart move for a potential game in Winnipeg: Imagine the Jets hosting a game in Winnipeg in February? Ilya Bryzgalov almost turned off his TV in protest.

    Instead, Sportsnet’s John Shannon reports that the Jets are likely to host the Edmonton Oilers in October. That would be a smart logistical move, as long as it isn’t too hot.

    (Also, playing it then would hopefully increase the odds of the mainstream sporting public seeing Connor McDavid in an outdoor game.)

    Toronto’s turn: Friedman reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs are likely to host the Detroit Red Wings in the 2017 Winter Classic (or at least an outdoor game), almost certainly on New Year’s Day 2017.

    The two teams combined for a great Winter Classic at Ann Arbor in 2014, so that could be a fun time.

    ***

    Keep in mind these are reports (and well-placed ones at that) rather than official announcements for the NHL. These things could always change.

    Related: Could the Penguins host the Flyers outdoors next season, too?

    Ducks likely to recall Khudobin after Gibson injury

    Chicago Blackhawks' Richard Panik (14), of Slovakia, collides with Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson (36) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Chicago. Anaheim won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
    AP
    Leave a comment

    “Costly victories” may have been one of the themes of Saturday night, as some teams paired impressive wins with worrisome injuries.

    The good news is that, in each case, it appears that the early word is optimistic about those players (Tyler Seguin got stitched up in the Stars’ win, for example).

    The Anaheim Ducks are reportedly readying to recall Anton Khudobin on Sunday after John Gibson suffered an upper-body injury during a collision with Chicago Blackhawks forward Richard Panik.

    Again, so far the hope/expectation is that this might not be a major issue:

    The pessimistic take would be to wonder “Uh oh, is the Ducks goalie carousel starting again?”

    Frederik Andersen has seen some runs as Anaheim’s No. 1 guy, so maybe this issue is a reminder that the Ducks may be better off keeping both Gibson and Andersen around … at least while they can.