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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    The Buzzer: Senators win, Subban from center, Lehtonen notches 300th win

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    Players of the Night: 

    Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators: It’s been a struggle for Ryan this season. He came into the game with just as single goal in 21 games but left with two in 22 while also adding an assist to help the Senators avoid a six-game losing streak.

    Tyler Pitlick, Dallas Stars: Pitlick scored twice, bookending Dallas’s five goals in a 5-2 win against the New York Islanders.

    P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators: If you continue reading (and you should) you will see Subban’s goal that came from quite a distance. The defenseman notched two in a ___ win against the Vancouver Canucks, powering the Preds to their ninth win in their past 12 games.

    Highlights of the Night: 

    Brad Marchand fought off Mike Green, and then did this to win in overtime:

    Dylan Larkin. Breakway. Shorthanded. Backhand.

    Blunder of the Night: 

    Yikes, Anders Nilsson. Bravo, P.K.

    Factoids of the Night: 

    Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen killed two birds with one stone on Wednesday:

    Filip Forsberg accomplished an impressive feat for the second time in his career.

    MISC: 

    Scores: 

    Senators 3, Rangers 2

    Stars 5, Islanders 2

    Bruins 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)

    Predators 7, Canucks 1


    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

    Stone-cold man wins car, reacts appropriately

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    Has anyone ever remained so calm after winning a car?

    This Vancouver Canucks fan, introduced as Aaron, won a brand new Toyota tonight, hitting a shot from center ice through a hole barely wider enough to fit the puck.

    We should have seen this coming.

    Aaron’s stone-cold demeanour reared its head long before he took his first shot.

    “Do you like to drive?” Canucks in-game and TV host Hannah Bernard asked.

    “Of course,” Aaron said.

    “Could you use a new car?” Bernard followed.

    “Always,” he replied, stoically.

    “Are you nervous?” Bernard asked.

    “Yeah,” Aaron said, presumably lying.

    Aaron, again presumably, began to troll those at Rogers Arena. He missed wide left on his first attempt, then wide right on his second.

    Then he calmly sent the third arrow-straight down the middle.

    “I said I’d win it,” Aaron said. “It’ll be a long drive home, but it will be worth it.”

    He certainly showed P.K. Subban the way. The Predators defenseman scored his own goal from center ice in the same game.

    Bravo, Aaron. Simply incredible.

    Marchand, Pastrnak come through in Bruins’ 3-2 overtime win against Red Wings

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    The Boston Bruins mounted two successful comebacks in the third period on their way to a 3-2 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday.

    The Bruins, who have been surging as of late, won for the 10th time in their past 12.

    The Red Wings, in quite the opposite scenario, lost their third straight and for the 11th time in their past 12 contests.

    By all accounts, the Red Wings deserved a better fate, at least until the third period.

    They limited the high-flying Bruins to just two shots in the first period and clawed out a 1-0 lead midway through the second frame, with Tomas Tatar‘s wrist shot finding twine after a perfect screen from Justin Abdelkader.

    Boston found the equalizer they needed early in the third frame, and from an unlikely source.

    Noel Acciari tied the game 1-1 with his second of the season after getting a couple whacks at a loose puck in front of Jimmy Howard, capping off a solid shift from the Bruins fourth line at 3:02.

    Detroit took the lead for a second time, this time short-handed after David Pastrnak got caught pinching, allowing Dylan Larkin to get behind the Bruins rearguard, scoring a beauty on a breakaway to make it 2-1.

    Scoring for Boston had been a strength coming into the game.

    David Pastrnak, Boston’s top point-getter, came into the game sporting an eight-game point streak. Brad Marchand, sitting just behind Pastrnak in terms of points, have a five-game heater of his own going.

    The dynamic duo wouldn’t be denied; the streaks would continue.

    Marchand picked out Pastrnak with a perfect back-door feed to tie the game 2-2 with 1:26 remaining in regulation, forcing overtime.

    Marchand, now running with good karma, took a backhand pass from Torey Krug and turned it into a partial breakaway, fending off Mike Green, and putting his backhand in the top shelf behind Howard.

    Tuukka Rask extended his win streak to five games. Rask, who struggled out the gate to start the season, stopped 31 shots and continues to look like the goalie of years past.


    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

    WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Detroit Red Wings

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    CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

    PROJECTED LINES

    BRUINS

    Forwards

    Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

    Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciAnders Bjork

    Danton HeinenRiley NashDavid Backes

    Tim SchallerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

    Defensemen

    Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

    Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

    Matt GrzelcykPaul Postma

    Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask 

    NHL on NBCSN: Bruins, Red Wings do battle in Atlantic Division clash

    RED WINGS

    Forwards

    Anthony ManthaDylan LarkinTomas Tatar

    Justin AbdelkaderHenrik ZetterbergGustav Nyquist

    Luke GlendeningFrans NielsenDarren Helm

    Martin FrkAndreas AthanasiouLuke Witkowski

    Defensemen

    Danny DeKeyserMike Green

    Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley

    Niklas KronwallNick Jensen

    Starting goalie: Jimmy Howard