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

1 Comment

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.

Capitals pushed by ‘that hurt’ from playoff letdown

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10:  Nick Bonino #13 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his game winning overtime goal against the Washington Capitals in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) When Matt Niskanen contemplated skipping a trip to the gym over the summer, he remembered what happened in May.

As the offseason went on, Niskanen thought less and less about the Washington Capitals’ loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Instead, he let the memory of the second-round playoff exit fuel him from time to time.

“That hurt, it lingers, and I think you can use that as motivation,” Niskanen said. “That kind of stuff creeps into your mind and it pushes you.”

Now several months removed from another painful playoff loss, the Capitals came to training camp ready to harness whatever energy they could from that while also preparing to move past it and focus on another run at the Cup this season. Almost the entire roster is back from the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team that ran roughshod over the NHL during the regular season, and with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby in their primes, there isn’t time to waste on reflection and hindsight.

“You need to see where things went awry and try to rectify it,” said veteran winger Justin Williams, one of several players with one year left on his contract. “We set a standard with having successful teams, a team every year fans can look at and say, `You know, we legitimately have a chance to win it again.’ As players we embrace that and we respect it and we know that these opportunities that we have in front of us aren’t forever.”

Along with Williams, winger T.J. Oshie and defenseman Karl Alzner could be unrestricted free agents July 1. Restricted free agent center Evgeny Kuznetsov will get a big raise on a new deal, and Washington’s salary cap picture will get more difficult as the years go on.

Ovechkin also just turned 31, and while he led the league in scoring last season, there’s no certainty as to how long his Hall of Fame-caliber production will keep up. After winning the division by 16 points and losing in the second round – again – general manager Brian MacLellan doesn’t think there’s a bigger burden on winning this year with so many unknowns on the horizon.

“I think there’s pressure every year,” MacLellan said. “Last year we were a contender, there’s pressure. Same pressure this year. We have a goal of winning a championship. We know we’re close and we need to pursue it and we’ll do everything we can to get there.”

Alzner was just starting to get over the early exit when pictures of the Penguins celebrating with the Cup filled up his social media feeds. The ironman whose groin injury forced him out of the deciding Game 6 and led to sports hernia surgery scoffed at the notion that Pittsburgh winning makes the loss easier to take.

“It’s worse, in my opinion, because then you really think, `OK if I could have got past that team then the Cup was ours,”‘ said Alzner, who’s still working his way back to 100 percent. “I think that all of us in the room thought that we were going to win that last year.”

Being great in the regular season and losing in the first or second round has become the Capitals’ reputation over the past decade. The 2015-16 team was perhaps the best on paper, which made the late stumble into summer that much more confounding.

As more top players continue to trickle back into town after playing in the World Cup of Hockey, associate coach Todd Reirden expects the staff to impart lessons about last season on the full group. Early in camp, the mood is light with players eager to make a fresh start and learn from losing to the Penguins.

Asked what the Capitals can do to improve, Williams deadpanned: “We can finish the season with a win. That’s it.”

That’s a challenge that can’t be accomplished until the spring. Players, coaches and fans may want to fast-forward until then, but Washington has to again get there first.

“You’ve got to be patient,” center Jay Beagle said. “The game has to develop. We’ve got new guys, so we want to go into this year making sure we’re playing our best going into the end of the year and in the playoffs.”

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

Plenty of betting options for World Cup final round

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 24:  Patrice Bergeron #37 of the Boston Bruins checks Marian Hossa #81 of the Chicago Blackhawks in Game Six of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 24, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

Bovada released a wide array of betting options for the best-of-three final round of the World Cup between Canada and Team Europe on Monday.

Naturally, there are the run of the mill matters like game lines:

Europe vs. Canada (World Cup of Hockey Finals)

Europe +575 (23/4)

Canada -1000 (1/10)

Total Goals Europe vs. Canada (World Cup of Hockey Finals)

Over/Under 6

Interesting over/under, huh?

Things get more fun as the prop bets get stranger/more specific. Personally, the head-to-head player bets rank among the most fascinating:

Who will record more points in the game?

Sidney Crosby (CAN) 2/3

Anze Kopitar (EUR) 11/4

Draw 5/2

Who will record more points in the game?

Patrice Bergeron (CAN) 1/1

Draw 2/1

Marian Hossa (EUR) 9/4

Who will record more points in the game?

Brad Marchand (CAN) 4/5

Draw 9/5

Mats Zuccarello (EUR) 3/1

Hmm, maybe Marchand wouldn’t be the greatest bet. He’s probably feeling pretty fat and happy after signing that $49 million contract extension, after all.

At least one outlet finds Europe to be an enticing gamble thanks to Jaroslav Halak‘s hot play, for what it’s worth.

Jacob Trouba’s agent expands on trade request

UNIONDALE, NY - OCTOBER 28: Jacob Trouba #8 of the Winnipeg Jets skates against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on October 28, 2014 in Uniondale, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
7 Comments

Jacob Trouba‘s agent Kurt Overhardt repeatedly shot down certain questions as “private” matters regarding a very public trade request from the Winnipeg Jets, yet his interview on TSN’s Hustler & Lawless spoke volumes about the impasse.

From the sound of things, it would be tough for the Jets to get Trouba to change course and sign a deal with the team.

Trouba seeks a spot as a top two defenseman, or at least one of a team’s top two options on the right side, something Overhardt firmly believes cannot happen in Winnipeg. He quickly deflected hypothetical scenarios regarding Dustin Byfuglien moving to the left or Tyler Myers getting bumped down the Jets’ depth chart.

“None of this is happening on a whim,” Overhardt said. ” … This has nothing to do with money.”

This excerpt from the Trouba press release hit a lot of the same points:

There has been no negotiation regarding the terms of a contract between our client and the Jets over the course of the last several months. The situation is not about money; it is solely about our client having the opportunity to realize his potential as a right shot NHL defenseman.

To the Jets credit, the club has two outstanding right shot veteran defensemen and our client simply wants the opportunity to have a greater role. As a consequence of the Jets depth on the right side, we believe it is in both parties’ best interest to facilitate a mutually advantageous trade.

You can read the team’s response in this post. Overhardt made it a point to mention that “several teams” would love to have Trouba’s rights, and would be able to give him the opportunity he craves.

Interestingly, he dodged a question about Trouba possibly sitting out the 2016-17 season, if it came down to it.

The full radio appearance is available here.

Lightning sign their other Nikita (Nesterov)

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - APRIL 07:  Nikita Nesterov #89 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on April 7, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the New Jersey Devils 4-2.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

The Tampa Bay Lightning signed their second-most important Nikita on Monday, inking Nikita Nesterov to a one-year, $725K contract.

The 23-year-old defenseman has to appreciate the fact that this is a one-way deal, as the Lightning blueline isn’t the easiest group to crack. (That will be especially true if James Wisniewski makes an impression with his PTO.)

Nesterov has been battling for ice time the past two seasons and was also a member of Russia’s World Cup team. It’s super-important to note that he wears No. 89, which is a little unusual for a defenseman.

(Only the important tidbits here.)

Now, onto the tougher challenge of signing that other Nikita