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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    With Allen struggling, Blues turn to Pheonix Copley on Saturday

    ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9: Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save against the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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    The recent struggles of St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen have been well documented at this point.

    In his past 11 appearances he has managed only an .867 save percentage, his coach believes he is “locked up mentally,” and he did not even make the the trip with the team to Winnipeg for their game on Saturday afternoon against the Jets after giving up four goals on 10 shots against the Washington Capitals.

    With Allen at home getting a chance to “reset,” the Blues will be turning to recent call-up Pheonix Copley on Saturday afternoon as he makes his first career start.

    Copley was called up from the Blues’ AHL team in Chicago following the Blues’ recent loss to Washington. In 18 appearances with the Chicago Wolves this season Copley has a .920 save percentage and an 11-4-1 record.

    The 25-year-old Copley, who was acquired by the Blues two years ago as part of the T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer trade, has appeared in only one NHL game in his career. That was a relief appearance during the 2015-16 season when he took over for Allen in a 5-0 loss to the Nashville Predators. Copley stopped five of the six shots he faced that night.

    The Blues enter Saturday’s game having lost four of their past six games and are on the playoff bubble with 51 points in 46 games. The point total ties them with Nashville for third place in the Central Division (St. Louis has the tiebreaker at the moment because it has more regulation and overtime wins) while both teams are just one point ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.

    Lightning place Erik Condra on waivers

    SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 16: Erik Condra #22 of the Tampa Bay Lightning takes a shot on goal during a game against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center on November 16, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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    For the second time this season the Tampa Bay Lightning have placed veteran forward Erik Condra on waivers.

    The latest move came after he was a healthy scratch for Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Condra, 30, is currently in the second year of a three-year, $3.75 million contract he signed in free agency to join the team a year ago. So far his time with the Lightning has been a bit of a disappointment.

    He has played in just 10 games for the Lightning this season and has yet to record a point.

    The Lightning placed him on waivers just before the start of the 2016-17 season. He has spent most of this season playing for the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League where he has recorded 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 24 games.

    In 363 career games at the NHL level Condra has 39 goals and 59 assists. Only six of those goals have come as a member of the Lightning over the past two seasons since signing his contract in free agency.

    Sam Bennett on healthy scratch: ‘I don’t want to be in that position again’

    CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Sam Bennett #93 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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    With four of their top-five scorers this season age 23 or younger, the Calgary Flames have a solid foundation of young core players in place when it comes to building a playoff contending team (and right now, they would be in the playoffs). Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Dougie Hamilton, all part of that young core, and have all been significant contributors to their playoff push this season.

    One of their young players that has struggled a bit this season, and especially recently, has been 20-year-old forward Sam Bennett.

    On Thursday night he even found himself as a healthy scratch for the team’s 4-3 loss to the Nashville Predators as a result of those recent struggles.

    With only 18 points (nine goals, nine assists), a 46 percent Corsi percentage, and only 1.6 shots on goal per game this season it has been a bit of a disappointing season for the 2014 No. 4 overall pick. Especially after he showed so much promise during the 2015 playoffs and a year ago in what was his first full season in the league.

    On Friday, Bennett talked about the experience of having to watch from the press box, calling it “really tough.”

    “Watching wasn’t fun,” Bennett said, via Kristen Odland of the Calgary Herald. “Everything about (Thursday) wasn’t fun. I don’t want to be in that position again. I want to do everything I can to stay in the lineup.”

    The decision to sit Bennett came after a particularly difficult stretch for him that saw him go 10 consecutive games without recording a single point and only 13 shots on goals while playing less than 15 minutes in three of the games. He is expected to draw back into the lineup for Saturday’s Battle of Alberta game against the Edmonton Oilers.

    As tough as the experience likely was for Bennett it’s still something that can be beneficial for a young player going through the type of slump he has gone through because it gives a perspective they might not get from being on the ice.

    The Flames enter Saturday’s game against Edmonton occupying the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, one point ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.

    Scott Darling may have earned himself some extra playing time

    CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 05: Scott Darling #33 of the Chicago Blackhawks follows the action against the Arizona Coyotes at the United Center on April 5, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Coyotes 6-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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    When the Chicago Blackhawks’ run of three Stanley Cups in six seasons started back in the 2009-10 season, goaltending was pretty consistently their biggest question mark over the first three or four years of that run. Today, as the Blackhawks continue to sit near the top of the Western Conference standings, it might be one of their greatest strengths.

    At this point it is not just because of Corey Crawford‘s development into one of the league’s best, most consistent starters.

    They are also getting excellent play from his backup, Scott Darling, and it continued on Friday night when he received the start against the Boston Bruins — only his second start in January — and responded with a 30-save shutout.

    Darling’s play has improved significantly this season in the Blackhawks’ net, and after Friday’s game he is carrying a .928 save percentage in his 21 appearances this season, including a pair of shutouts.

    Together the duo has the fourth best overall save percentage in the NHL (.920) and the second best even-strength save percentage (.937), trailing only the Washington Capitals.

    It is a positive development for both the Blackhawks and Darling himself.

    From a Blackhawks perspective, his play has given them a reliable backup that was not only able to successfully fill in for Crawford when he missed nearly a month due to an appendectomy earlier this season, but it has also made it so they can potentially manage his minutes a little more and keep him fresh for the playoffs without having to run him into the ground during the regular season. With Crawford going through a bit of a slump recently, allowing it least three goals in eight of his past 11 starts, it might even leave the door open for Darling to get another start on Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks.

    When asked about that possibility after Friday’s game coach Joel Quenneville would only say, “Their play a lot of time makes our decision for us.”

    Of course, we probably should not make too much of this. Crawford is still going to be the guy in Chicago, and even though he has hit a bit of a rough patch lately he is still one of the top goalies in the league and you have to think he will eventually work his way out this recent funk. It’s just that Darling might be worthy of getting an additional start or two at the moment until that happens.

    For Darling, it has been a big season as he plays through the final year of his contract and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Looking at the UFA market for goalies, you have Ryan Miller, who will be 36 years old and not really represent much of a long-term solution for anybody, and Ben Bishop and Steve Mason, who are both going through disappointing seasons. After that it is a bunch of a question marks. If Darling can continue to take advantage of the opportunities he gets in Chicago the way he has so far this season, he might end up earning himself an even bigger one in the summer.