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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    Predators’ Ryan Hartman suspended one game for illegal check to head

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    When the Nashville Predators attempt to close out their series against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night they will be without forward Ryan Hartman.

    The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Thursday afternoon that Hartman has been suspended one game for an illegal check to the head of Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg during the Predators’ 3-2 win in Game 4 on Wednesday.

    Here is the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

    He was given a two-minute minor penalty for charging on the play. It happened early in the third period.

    It turned out to be a pretty eventful night for Hartman as he was also penalized in the second period for roughing and holding the stick during a sequence that saw him get speared by Avalanche forward Sven Andrighetto.

    Andrighetto was given a roughing penalty during the sequence, but to this point has not received any supplemental discipline for the spearing incident.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    This is already the fourth suspension of the playoffs as Hartman joins Drew Doughty (one game), Nazem Kadri (three games), and Josh Morrissey (one game) as players to sit for at least one game.

    There was only one suspension during the entire 2017 playoffs.

    The Predators acquired Hartman at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Victor Ejdsell, a first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick. In 78 games this season between the two teams he scored 11 goals to go with 20 assists. Three of those goals game as a member of the Predators. So far in the first-round series against Colorado he has scored one goal for the Predators.

    Related: Avalanche to start Andrew Hammond in Game 5

    ————

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Sharks showed in Round 1 they’re not done yet

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    For the better part of the past two decades the San Jose Sharks have been a near constant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, making 18 appearances in 20 years. Because that run has not yet resulted in a Stanley Cup — and at times resulted in some crushing, premature postseason exits — they have usually been more of a playoff punchline than a celebrated success story for being a contender almost every year. With every passing year that does not result in a championship, and with every year that foundational  players like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski get older, we seem to forget about them a little more.

    It’s usually the old “their window has closed” situation as we wait for them to fade into obscurity.

    Then two years ago, after everyone seemingly gave up on them being a serious threat to ever win it all, they finally had a breakthrough and reached the Stanley Cup Final.

    They entered the playoffs this year as somewhat of an afterthought once again (hey, I admit, I was guilty of that too), lost beneath the hype of the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and even their second-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights. But after making quick work of an overmatched and hapless Ducks team in round one, outscoring them by an 16-4 margin in a clean four-game sweep, they are now in the second-round of the playoffs ready to take on the Vegas with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. They have done all of this while only getting 47 games out of Thornton who has not played since the end of January.

    So what has been the key to their success? For one, they finally have a goalie they can count on in the playoffs.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    One of the biggest issues that plagued some of the great Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau teams in the early-mid 2000s were some truly disastrous postseason goaltending performances from the likes of Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi that completely sunk the team’s chances. Those postseason shortcomings were then hung on the two guys at the top of the lineup (Thornton and Marleau) even though they almost always produced.

    Now the net belongs to Martin Jones, and in what is his third playoff run with the team he is once again playing some of his best hockey at the right time of year.

    Jones was incredible in the first-round sweep of the Ducks, turning aside 128 of the 132 shots he faced. In his 34 playoff games as a member of the Sharks he now has a .930 save percentage. Of the 18 goalies that have appeared in at least 10 playoff games during that stretch, that would be tied for the third best mark in the NHL. That sort of goaltending will always give you a chance.

    For as good as Jones has been, it is not just the goaltending that is sparking the Sharks right now.

    They have also managed to reshape their roster a bit and work in some youth and speed, even from what the team looked like just one year ago. The Ducks, a classic rough-and-tumble “heavy hockey” Pacific Division team, were overmatched it by from the drop of the puck in Game 1.

    When looking at the skaters that played in the first-round this season versus the first round a year ago (when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers) you can see where the changes come in.

    After being a healthy scratch in all six playoff games a year ago, 22-year-old Kevin Labanc not only played in all four games in the first-round, he recorded two assists, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and generally played great two-way hockey. The same was true for 23-year-old center Chris Tierney as he came off what was a breakout regular season performance. Twenty-one-year-old Timo Meier, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015, saw an increased role this season and after scoring 21 goals during the regular season contributed three points in the first-round against the Ducks.

    That influx of young talent has been a great complement to the established veterans already on the roster, including Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl, a trio that combined for six goals against the Ducks. And that doesn’t even include trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane whose two goal effort in Game 1 helped lead the Sharks to their first win of the playoffs.

    Including playoffs, the Sharks are 16-6-1 since that trade while Kane has had three multiple-goal games during that stretch.

    Given how impressive Vegas was in its first round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings — a series that pretty much mirrored the Sharks’ win, where a faster, more skilled team overwhelmed a slower, bigger, more physical team — the Sharks are certainly going to have their hands full in round two. But they have put themselves in a great position to make another deep run in the Western Conference in another year where everybody kind of forgot about them.

    The Sharks are still here. They are still good. Given the makeup of their roster, they are not ready to go away anytime soon.

    ————

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Andrew Hammond to start Game 5 for Avalanche

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    When the Colorado Avalanche hit the ice in Nashville on Friday night they will be facing elimination. They will also need to rely on their third-string goalie to help get them a win if they are going to extend their season.

    The team announced on Thursday that Andrew Hammond will be getting the start, replacing Jonathan Bernier who had to leave Wednesday’s game after two periods with a lower body injury. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Bernier’s injury has been a nagging one and that he could still be available off the bench on Friday if needed.

    The Avalanche had been starting Bernier because their regular starter, Semyon Varlamov, is out for the remainder of the season due to a lower body injury of his own.

    Obviously, this puts the Avalanche in a pretty tough spot. Not only because they have to go on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators, but also because they have to turn to a goalie that, including Wednesday’s brief relief appearance, has appeared in just eight NHL games over the past two years. He has faced only 127 shots in those appearances and managed only an .874 save percentage.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

     Hammond’s career has been a fascinating one to this point.

    Late in the 2014-15 season he came out of nowhere as a 25-year-old rookie to lead the Ottawa Senators on an improbable late season run (where Hammond put together a 20-1-2 record) to qualify for the playoffs. Nicknamed “the Hamburglar,” his initial run in Ottawa was highlighted by fans throwing hamburgers on the ice to celebrate his wins.  That run earned him a contract extension with the Senators and a bunch of free hamburgers from McDonalds. It was a crazy year.

    After that, though, injuries and a decline in his production have limited him to just a handful of appearances in the NHL.

    The Avalanche acquired him from the Senators earlier this season as part of the Matt Duchene trade.

    Now he has to jump into the crease in an elimination game.

    ————

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Predators’ Ryan Hartman to have hearing after illegal check to the head

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    Ryan Hartman had a tough night at the office on Wednesday night and will have to answer to the NHL’s Department of Player Safety because of it.

    Hartman’s hearing stems from a charging penalty he was assessed after lining up Colorado Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg‘s head with his shoulder at the 4:42 mark of the third period.

    Soderberg was forced to leave the game after the play.

    Earlier in the game, Hartman tried to line up Sven Andrighetto from a mile out in the second period but missed, prompting the latter to come and give Hartman some business, which included a stick below the belt to Hartman.

    The Predators took Game 4 by a 3-2 margin, holding off a third-period comeback attempt from the Avalanche to take a 3-1 series lead.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck