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.

End of an era: Coyotes part ways with Tippett days after Doan departure

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The Arizona Coyotes will look different in 2017-18, and not just because longtime captain Shane Doan won’t be back. The team confirmed that they’re parting ways with head coach Dave Tippett late on Thursday.

Tippett spent eight seasons as head coach of the Coyotes, peaking with a run to the 2012 Western Conference Final. Early on, he distinguished himself as being able to coach a sound enough defense to help the team correct for a low-budget roster.

In recent years, he hasn’t been able to conjure that same magic. The Coyotes missed the playoffs in the last five seasons of Tippett’s tenure.

“On behalf of the entire Coyotes organization, I would like to sincerely thank Tip for all of his hard work and the many contributions he made to our organization,” Coyotes owner Andrew Barroway said. “Tip is a man of high character and we are very grateful for his leadership during his tenure as our head coach. Ultimately, we have some philosophical differences on how to build our team. Therefore, we mutually agreed that it is in everyone’s best interest to have a coaching change in order to move our franchise forward.”

Along with Doan and Tippett, Mike Smith is also out of town, and the ownership situation has come into focus. Former GM Don Maloney was fired last summer, so this franchise has been making big changes for some time, even ignoring the perennial arena drama.

The Coyotes announced that a new coaching search would kick into gear “immediately.” They might not have scored points with potential candidates considering the last week or so …

It’s a true changing of the guard out in the desert. This is also a time of stability heading into Friday, the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft.

More on the changes

Coyotes receive criticism for the way they handled Doan’s departure.

Mike Smith traded to Calgary, “no consolation prize” for Flames.

Oilers reportedly might spend Eberle savings on signing Russell

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Optimistic Edmonton Oilers fans who didn’t like the Jordan Eberle trade could at least rationalize the savings, as Ryan Strome comes at a $3.5 million salary-cap discount. Surely that money will be focused squarely on locking up the future – aka sorting things out with Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid – right?

After all, that was the spin from GM Peter Chiarelli: moving Eberle for Strome was all about “long-term thinking.”

Well, about that …

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the Oilers are nearing a deal with defenseman Kris Russell that could carry approximately a $4 million cap hit over a four-year term. The dollar amount can change, but that would put the shot-blocking defenseman’s cost at around $16 million overall. (There are rumblings that it might be $18M with a no-movement clause.)

Now, before we criticize (er, discuss) the move, do note that McKenzie reports that it isn’t a done deal. If it happens, it might not be announced until Friday, anyway.

If it does go through, the move inspires comparisons to last summer. To refresh your memory, the Oilers made a polarizing (but money-saving) move by sending Taylor Hall to the Devils for Adam Larsson. Shortly after that trade, the Oilers essentially used those savings to sign Milan Lucic.

Results were … mixed, and Lucic’s contract seemingly stands as a barrier to accrue other assets.

Could the same thing happen here? Russell has his proponents, yet his possession stats indicate that his stature has been inflated, at times, around the NHL. One thing that’s undeniable is Russell’s age: he’s 30.

Will a 30-year-old defenseman fall apart during a four-year deal? Not necessarily, although his shot-blocking tendencies inspire some concern; just look at how Dan Girardi aged in New York.

Either way, it’s difficult to defend giving Russell about $4 million a year when you’re trying to sign Leon Draisaitl (RFA this summer) and Connor McDavid (RFA next summer, but eligible for an extension as early as July).

Recent rumblings don’t inspire a ton of confidence, either. For one thing, Chiarelli made a strange semi-challenge regarding Draisaitl and offer sheets.

There are also rumors about McDavid’s potential contract demands.

Again, the parameters of a Russell deal could change; the Oilers might not even bring him back at all. TSN’s Darren Dreger also notes that McDavid wouldn’t necessarily receive that big payday he’d possibly ask for.

Still, Oilers fans have experienced the worst-case scenario far more often than not in recent years, and these developments could inspire some doom and gloom … even if all three players are kept in the fold.

Report: Vegas isn’t interested in trading defensemen Theodore, Schmidt

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The Vegas Golden Knights enjoyed another busy day on Thursday, moving the likes of David Schlemko and Trevor van Riemsdyk. That doesn’t mean that all their defensemen are necessarily for sale, even with some pressure to trade away a few more.

Now, it’s plausible that someone merely hasn’t found the right price to entice Golden Knights GM George McPhee, but TSN’s Pierre LeBrun indicates that he’s shooting down offers for especially enticing young defensemen.

Specifically, McPhee gave a hard “No” to at least three teams regarding Shea Theodore and also stonewalled offers for Nate Schmidt, according to LeBrun.

It’s probably not fair to say that McPhee hasn’t been willing to move younger players altogether. After all, Trevor van Riemsdyk is 25, much like Schmidt.

Even so, one could infer that McPhee would be quicker to trade away a veteran whose value may not ever be higher, such as Marc Methot or Alexei Emelin.

For what it’s worth, let’s break down the Golden Knights’ current defensemen in two camps (30-and-under, 30-and-older) along with their contract situations, with help from Cap Friendly.

Under 30

Luca Sbisa, 27, $3.6 million cap hit through 2017-18
Brayden McNabb, 26, $1.7M through 2017-18
Jon Merrill, 25, $1.138M through 2017-18
Colin Miller, 24, $1M through 2017-18
Theodore, 21, $863K through 2017-18
Griffin Reinhart, 23, RFA
Schmidt, 25, RFA

30 and older

Methot, $4.9M through 2018-19
Jason Garrison, $4.6M through 2017-18
Emelin, $4.1M through 2017-18
Clayton Stoner, 32, $3.25M through 2017-18
Deryk Engelland, 35, $1M through 2017-18

Considering the options at hand, it’s still feasible that someone might convince McPhee to ship Schmidt and/or Theodore over, anyway. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been connected to Schmidt and Colin Miller in rumors, though it’s unclear how likely such moves might be. Vegas isn’t tied to many players beyond this coming season, so they have plenty of flexibility to change their minds.

The Golden Knights may also view the trade deadline as a more fruitful time to move a veteran such as Methot.

Even so, it sure sounds like McPhee would at least prefer to build around his youngsters, and Theodore might be the clearest keeper of them all.

NHL may punish failed offside reviews with penalties next season

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It wasn’t a good look for the league, and it wasn’t captivating television, particularly for casual hockey fans intrigued by a fresh Stanley Cup Final matchup.

P.K. Subban seemed to score the first goal of the Penguins – Predators series, only for the 1-0 tally to be overturned after a lengthy offside review. Plenty of people in Nashville were never convinced that the league made the right call, and even if it was correct, Filip Forsberg would have been offside by a tiny margin. The fact that it came mere hours after Gary Bettman praised the process only exacerbated the issue.

(You can watch that agonizingly minute discussion in the video above. Predators fans might not want to re-live it.)

Colin Campbell presented an interesting question for next season on Thursday: would a team like Pittsburgh make such a marginal challenge if a failed review would result in a minor penalty?

It’s something the executive will bring to the competition committee and then the Board of Governors; Campbell believes such a tweak has a strong chance of being instituted in 2017-18.

Previously, a coach would lose his timeout if an offside goal review failed. If this change is implemented, a team would keep that timeout but suffer a minor penalty.

Campbell notes that this tweak would apply to offside challenges, not goalie interference reviews.

Ultimately, for Campbell, it comes down to the spirit of the offside rule. (TSN has video of his full comments.)

Amusingly, the Predators also suffered from an infamous offside goal that would have benefited from an obvious review, as this Matt Duchene goal from 2013 inspired the NHL to admit that a mistake was made.

The logic is pretty simple. If a goal was glaringly offside, then a team will view a challenge as worth the risk of possibly being penalized. If it’s a matter of inches or some other marginal question, a penalty would – ideally – deter a team from making a flimsier challenge. Specifically, Campbell pointed to offside reviews in which goals came long after the infraction had a significant impact on play.

Now, sure, you could make some wise cracks about the idea, especially considering how the NHL’s suffered from a painful roll-out of a change here and there. And perhaps some coaches will still believe that it’s worth the risk to flip that coin.

Still, the league’s heart is in the right place, and it could very well succeed in two goals: getting things right and not boring everyone to tears.

Related

NHL might crack down on slashes, too