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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    Panthers boost playoff hopes, end Penguins’ streak

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    For quite some time, it seemed like the Metropolitan Division would send five teams to the playoffs while the top-heavy Atlantic would only generate three.

    The Metro still dominates the wild-card picture, but with all apologies to the scrappy Red Wings, the Florida Panthers stand as the one Atlantic team with a shot at crashing the party. For all of the front office upheaval, the past few nights provide evidence that they could do some damage if they walk in that door.

    Maybe it’s fitting for an up-and-down team to see some extreme highs and lows in an eventual 6-5 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Despite some strong work from Evgeni Malkin, the Panthers went into the third period with a 4-2 lead. That wouldn’t end up being enough, as the two teams traded blows during a frantic, five-goal final frame. The Penguins briefly tied the contest up at 5-5, pushing for a seventh straight win, but it was not to be.

    Ultimately, Evgenii Dadonov (first career hat trick) trumped Evgeni Malkin (two goals, one assist) in getting the late game-winner. Perhaps the Panthers will try to lift up a community rattled by tragic shootings, as this is the second straight game where they’ve notched decisive goals late in front of home fans.

    (Thursday’s win against the Capitals was even more dramatic, as they rallied late after Roberto Luongo‘s stirring speech before the game.)

    Now, the Panthers might not seem like much of a threat with 62 points, as the Columbus Blue Jackets currently hold the East’s final wild-card spot with 67. Games played paint a brighter picture, though.

    Here’s how the wild-card races look as of this writing:

    Devils (currently facing Islanders): 70 points in 61 games played, first WC
    Blue Jackets (won tonight): 67 points in 62 GP, second WC

    Islanders (facing Devils): 65 points in 62 GP
    Hurricanes (lost tonight): 64 points in 62 GP
    Panthers: 62 points in 59 GP
    Red Wings (beat Canes): 61 points in 60 GP
    Rangers: 59 points in 62 GP

    On one hand, the Panthers’ situation isn’t that different from the Red Wings,’ at least if Florida doesn’t get hot. On the other hand, consider that the Panthers have a few games in hand on everyone ahead of them. The margin could close rapidly … or they could fade.

    Credit the Panthers for making things interesting, and if things go well, making their competition sweat.

    That’s the power of “Dadonov Strength.”

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Devils retire Patrik Elias’ jersey

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    NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The New Jersey Devils retired career scoring leader Patrik Elias’ No. 26 jersey in a ceremony before their game against the New York Islanders on Saturday night.

    The 41-year-old former Czech forward played his final game in 2016, finishing a 20-year career in New Jersey with two Stanley Cup championships and most of the team’s scoring records.

    “For someone growing up in Eastern Europe, in a communist country, there’s no way I could have ever dreamed of this day,” said Elias, whose eyes welled with tears during his speech that was interrupted several times by chants of “Paddy! Paddy!”

    Always a fan favorite, Elias walked through a section of the stands at the Prudential Center before taking his place on the ice with his wife, two daughters, former and current teammates and the franchise’s owners and management.

    The podium on the ice was shaped as a puck with the No. 26 on it, and it was by surrounded by other super-sized pucks with the same number and two trophies, the Stanley Cup and The Prince of Wales trophy, presented to the Eastern Conference winner.

    Elias played on four conference champions, scoring the winning goal in Game 7 against Philadelphia in 2000.

    Elias is the first European player to have his number retired by the Devils, and the first forward. Defensemen Scott Stevens (No. 4), Scott Niedermayer (No. 27) and Ken Daneyko (No. 3) and goaltender Martin Brodeur (No. 30) also had their jerseys retired. All four were in attendance with Brodeur, of course, getting the biggest ovation.

    It was appropriate that Elias’ No. 26 was raised to the rafters at the Prudential Center against the Islanders, the team he played his most games against, 91, and had his most points, 86.

    Elias is the Devils’ leader in points (1025), goals (408), assists (617), points in one season (96), points in a playoff season (23) and game-winning goals (80), .

    More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

    Stamkos, Hedman fight for Lightning during same period

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    Your results may vary, but from here, novelty carries a lot of weight when it comes to noting an NHL fight.

    Two superstar Tampa Bay Lightning players dropped the gloves in the same period against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday, and while neither showing was especially boisterous or violent, the rarity really drives the point home.

    As that tweet spoils, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman were the Bolts players who got a little testy in this one.

    First, Stamkos went after Karl Alzner in defense of running mate Nikita Kucherov (see the video above this post’s headline). Some might argue that this was less of a fight and more of an aggressive hugging, but it’s still an unusual sight. According to Hockey Fights’ listings, Stamkos has only fought on two other occasions in the NHL: against Brad Marchand (2014-15) and Nik Zherdev (2008-09).

    Hedman, meanwhile, dropped the gloves despite a considerable height advantage over Brendan Gallagher. You can see a portion of that fight in this GIF:

    While this might explain the anger:

    This would be Hedman’s sixth fight.

    Theory: Lightning players are just as anxious as the rest of us to see if they’re going to land Erik Karlsson.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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    The PHT NHL Trade Deadline Tracker is your one-stop shop for completed deals as the Feb. 26, 3 p.m. ET deadline approaches.

    Feb. 24 — New York Islanders acquire Brandon Davidson from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a 2019 third-round draft pick. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 23 – Vegas Golden Knights acquire Ryan Reaves and a 2018 fourth-round pick; Pittsburgh Penguins acquire Derick Brassard, Vincent Dunn, Tobias Lindberg and a 2018 third-round pick; Ottawa Senators acquire Ian Cole, Filip Gustavsson, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 22 – New Jersey Devils acquire Michael Grabner from New York Rangers for 2018 second-round pick and Yegor Rykov. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 22 – Florida Panthers acquire Frank Vatrano from Boston Bruins for 2018 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 21 – Washington Capitals acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal Canadiens for a 2019 fifth-round pick.

    Feb. 21 – Los Angeles Kings acquire Tobias Rieder* and Scott Wedgewood from Arizona Coyotes for Darcy Kuemper. (*Arizona retains 15 percent of Rieder’s salary.) | PHT analysis

    Feb. 20 – Boston Bruins acquire Nick Holden from New York Rangers for Rob O’Gara and a 2018 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 20 – San Jose Sharks acquire Eric Fehr from Toronto Maple Leafs for 2020 seventh-round pick.

    Feb. 19 – Washington Capitals acquire Michal Kempny from Chicago Blackhawks for a conditional* 2018 third-round pick. (*Chicago will receive the higher of Washington’s own third-round draft choice or the third-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Washington acquired the Toronto draft pick from the New Jersey Devils as part of the Marcus Johansson trade on July 2, 2017.) | PHT analysis

    Feb. 19 – Philadelphia Flyers acquire Petr Mrazek* from Detroit Red Wings for a conditional* 2nd round pick in 2018 or a 3rd round pick in 2018 or a 4th round pick in 2018 and a conditional* 3rd round pick in 2019 (*Red Wings retain half of Mrazek’s salary. *The 2018 fourth-round pick turns into a third-round pick if the Flyers make the playoffs and Mrazek wins five games during the regular season. That pick will become a second rounder if the Flyers win two playoff rounds and Mrazek wins six games. The 2019 third rounder becomes Red Wings property if Mrazek signs with the Flyers.) | PHT analysis

    Feb. 15 – Chicago Blackhawks acquire Chris DiDomenico from Ottawa Senators for Ville Pokka.

    Feb. 15 – St. Louis Blues acquire Nikita Soshnikov from Toronto Maple Leafs for 2019 fourth-round pick.

    Feb. 13 – Los Angeles Kings acquire Dion Phaneuf*, Nate Thompson from Ottawa Senators for Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore. (*Senators retain 25 percent of Phaneuf’s salary.) | PHT analysis