NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks vs. Sharks, Game 4: This year, Antti Niemi is the difference

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Blackhawks vs. San Jose Sharks, Game 4

3:00 p.m. EDT, May 23, 2010
Live on NBC

Blackhawks lead series 3-0

Heading into the playoffs, there were a number of
players that you could expect to step up and be the difference maker for
the Chicago Blackhawks. Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp; even
Marian Hossa had the potential to be a surprise once the playoffs
started. It happens every year: a successful team in the playoffs needs
not just it’s best players to step up but the role players and the
fringe players as well.

You always hope that the Sidney Crosby’s, Alex
Ovechkin’s and Nicklas Lidstrom’s would be at their best in the
postseason, but if this year has taught us anything it’s that there’s no
way a team can advance without more than just some help to take the
pressure off the top players.

Last year it was Evgeni Malkin.

The year before it was Henrik Zetterberg.

This season, for the Chicago Blackhawks, it’s…..Antti

The Finnish goaltender played 39 games for the
Blackhawks this past season and has just 42 games under his belt in the
NHL. He was an unknown goaltender two years ago, a player no one thought
twice about until video of his play was sent to the Blackhawks. He was
never expected to be this important for the Hawks, yet he was to whom
the team turned to be their playoff goaltender when Cristobal Huet
eventually fell apart.

Coming out of the Olympic break, and directly into the
trade deadline, the Blackhawks steadfastly stood by their goaltending
situation despite outcries from every corner that things would fall
apart once the postseason began. It appears that the Hawks never really
considered a move at the deadline — and in reality, the price was going
to be extremely steep — and headed into the second part of the season
with all of their faith in Huet.

He played in just six games after the Olympic break,
starting five and losing three. Antti Niemi didn’t do much to steal the
job himself and coach Joel Quenneville implored for one of these two
goaltenders to do something, anything to step up and prove they deserved
the job in the postseason. Eventually, Niemi was named the goaltender
for the Hawks in the postseason and mainly because he just the “he’s not
as bad as Huet” option. The high-priced goaltender last appeared for
the Sharks on March 25th, allowing seven goals in a blowout loss to the
Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now, Niemi has advanced from steady playoff goaltender
to miracle worker in net for the Blackhawks and in three games has shown
that all the worries about goaltending in the playoffs were far from

The Blackhawks have played inspired hockey for two
straight series now after seemingly sleepwalking against the Predators.
Against the Canucks, it was their antagonizing approach that set off
Roberto Luongo and gave them the edge they needed against a team that
some — including myself — were convinced was more talented than the
Hawks. Yet against the Sharks, a team that has played with their backs
against the wall since Game 1, it’s been Niemi that’s been the edge and
inspiration the Hawks have rallied behind.

He’s certainly hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been as
close as can be expected. In game’s 1 and 3 combined he faced 91 shots
and allowed just three. Under barrage in the third period in Game 3
Niemi stopped 17 of 18 shots while his team was under incredible
pressure by the Sharks.

Coming into the postseason it was thought that if the
Niemi could at least provide decent goaltending then the Blackhawks
would at least have a better shot than last season. Heading into Game 4,
with a chance to eliminate the Sharks and move on to the Stanley Cup
finals, he’s been much, much more than just ‘decent’.

He’s inspired, he’s playing confident and he’s tracking
the puck and moving laterally as well as I’ve ever seen from Niemi. He’s
become better as the playoffs continue and for the Blackhawks who made
very little changes after last year’s disappointment, it seems that
Antti Niemi is the difference maker that Chicago needed. Not Hossa, not
Keith and not Kane; it was none other than Annti Niemi.

Even Dylan Larkin is fighting for the Red Wings now

NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 11:  Dylan Larkin #71 of the Detroit Red Wings plays against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 11, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Red Wings 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Something very strange has been happening in Detroit in the early parts of the 2016-17 season.

The Red Wings … are fighting. A lot.

This is a strange development because not only fighting has been rapidly decreasing across the league for several years now, but also because the Red Wings have been last in the league in fighting majors in 10 out of the past 11 seasons. The one year over that stretch they were not last (2012-13) they were 29th. Nobody fights less than these guys.

In most of those years they never even reached double digits in fighting majors, and have only had eight in each of the past two seasons.

But through the first five games this season they already have five of them, and that includes a rather stunning participant on Friday night during their 5-3 win over the Nashville Predator — 20-year-old forward Dylan Larkin, the team’s leading goal-scorer from a year ago and a top-five finisher in the Calder Trophy voting.

He dropped the gloves with Predators defenseman Yannick Weber early in the third period on Friday night.

Have a look.

According to the Hockeyfights.com database (all fighting stats listed here are via their database) that is Larkin’s first ever fight. And not just in the NHL, but apparently anywhere in hockey. He seemed to handle himself quite well. But let’s be honest, the Red Wings probably do not want to see the guy that is probably their best offensive player risking injury to drop his gloves and fight somebody.

As mentioned above, the Red Wings already have five fighting majors this season a number that currently leads the NHL. No other team in the NHL has more than three.

When it comes to their actual play on the ice the Red Wings have now won three games in a row after the starting the season 0-2.

They received a little bit of extra help late in the third period on Friday when protecting a one-goal lead they were given a full two-minute, 5-on-3 power play in large part because of Predators forward James Neal taking one of the worst penalties of the season when he cross-checked Alexey Marchenko after the play.

Neal’s teammate, Calle Jarnkrok, was already penalized on the play for high-sticking Darren Helm. Those two penalties pretty much ended whatever comeback hopes Nashville had on the night as Helm ended up scoring a power play goal with 22 seconds to play.

Blue Jackets call up Sonny Milano from AHL

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 31:  Sonny Milano #22 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates in his first NHL game against the the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on March 31, 2016 in New York City.  The Islanders defeated the Blkue Jackets 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Immediately after earning their first win of the season — a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks — the Columbus Blue Jackets made a roster move by calling up one of their top prospects, forward Sonny Milano, from the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League.

To make room for Milano on the roster the Blue Jackets sent Oliver Bjorkstrand down to the AHL.

The 20-year-old Milano was the Blue Jackets’ first-round draft pick (No. 16 overall) in the 2014 NHL draft. He spent most of the 2015-16 season playing for Lake Erie (now Cleveland) during their Calder Cup winning season, recording 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) during his first full season of pro hockey. He also added another eight points (four goals, four assists) during the Calder Cup playoffs.

His 2015-16 season also included a brief cup of coffee in the NHL with the Blue Jackets where he appeared in three games and recorded one assist near the end of the seasonHe had one goal in two games with Cleveland to start this season..

Milano is a highly skilled player that can do some pretty incredible things with the puck and should bring a little bit of excitement to a team that could really use some fresh talent up front.

Trevor van Riemsdyk could be out ‘for a bit’ for Blackhawks

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 05:  Trevor van Riemsdyk #57 of the Chicago Blackhawks shoots 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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It turned out to be a tough Friday night for the Chicago Blackhawks in Columbus.

Not only did they lose the game to the Blue Jackets, 3-2, thanks to another rough night for their penalty killing unit, but they also lost a defenseman to injury.

Trevor van Riemsdyk had to leave the game in the first period with what was described as an upper body injury when he crashed into the net. After the game coach Joel Quenneville said that van Riemsdyk could be “out for a bit” due to the injury, via Eric Lear of Blackhawks TV. He appeared in all 82 games for the Blackhawks a year ago and played nearly 20 minutes a night.

Before Friday he had appeared in only one game this season, while his name had been being mentioned in trade rumors. With van Riemsdyk getting back into the lineup on Friday there had been some speculation that it could make veteran defenseman Brian Campbell a healthy scratch, but the Blackhawks instead opted to dress seven defensemen. Even with the injury to van Riemsdyk, Campbell only played 12 minutes on Friday.

In other Blackhawks injury news, Quenneville said that injured forward Marian Hossa — who did not play on Friday — is questionable for the Blackhawks’ game on Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Blackhawks PK has another brutal night in loss to Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 15:  Zach Werenski #8 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates after the puck during the game against the San Jose Sharks on October 15, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

There will be no 0-8 start in Columbus this season.

The Blue Jackets were 3-2 winners against the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night to earn their first win of the season thanks to goals from Zach Werenski, Nick Foligno and William Karlsson. The first two of those goals came on the power play as the Blue Jackets were the latest team to feast on Chicago’s dismal penalty killing unit this season. Those two power play goals came on Columbus’ only two power play opportunities of the night.

Right now everybody is scoring against the Blackhawks on the power play.

With the two more goals against on Friday, Chicago’s penalty kill has already given up 11 goals through the first five games of the season, becoming just the 18th team in the past 30 years to do that.

Their early season penalty kill success rate has been so bad that as Daily Herald beat writer John Dietz pointed out on Friday that even if they successfully kill off their next 20 shorthanded opportunities their PK would still only be at 71.8 on the season. The worst penalty kill in the NHL a season ago was 75.5 percent. In other words: That is not ideal.

After falling behind 3-1, the Blackhawks attempted to rally thanks to a goal from Richard Panik (already his fifth of the season) to cut the deficit from one. They pretty much took over the game in the third period and threw everything they could at the Blue Jackets’ net, but Sergei Bobrovsky was sensational and holding down the fort and helping the Jackets get their first win of the season.

It was a costly win for the Blue Jackets in some ways though as they lost defenseman Ryan Murray to an upper body injury in the first period. Injuries have been a problem for him throughout his young career.

As for the Blackhawks, the loss drops them to 2-3-0 on the young season. There are a lot of new faces on this year’s team, and a lot of young players filling out the bottom half of the roster. Early on it has been a struggle for pretty much everybody.