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

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Niemi5.jpgChicago
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
Niemi?

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
warranted.

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.

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

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.

Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson