Antti Niemi

Sharks’ Niemi on facing ex-Chicago mates: “It’s a special game”

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There’ll be plenty of storylines at play tonight when the top two teams in the Western Conference — the Blackhawks and Sharks — meet at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.

One of the most predominant storylines? Sharks goalie Antti Niemi playing the team he captured a Stanley Cup with in 2010.

“It’s been a while from last time,” Niemi told the Chicago Tribune about facing the ‘Hawks. “It’s still a bunch of the same guys, so of course, it’s a special game.”

It was only three years ago that Niemi was an unheralded Finnish netminder who backstopped Chicago to its first Cup win since 1961.

He went on to sign with the Sharks just months after hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug and become their undisputed No. 1 netminder.

He’s also faced his former team eight times, though it’s been nearly a year since the last meeting:

Nov. 24, 2010 — 5-2 win, stopped 30 of 32 shots
Dec. 11, 2010 — 2-1 win, stopped 28 of 29 shots
Dec. 30, 2010 — 5-3 win, stopped 26 of 29 shots
Mar. 14, 2011 — 6-3 loss, pulled after allowing 4 goals on 18 shots
Nov. 23, 2011 — 1-0 win, stopped 34 of 34 shots (first shutout vs. CHI)
Dec. 11, 2011 — 3-2 OT loss, stopped 31 of 34 shots
Jan. 15, 2012 — 4-3 loss, stopped 36 of 40 shots
Feb. 10, 2012 — 5-3 win, stopped 30 of 33 shots

As you can see, Niemi’s had a lot of success against his old team — but he also tends to face a lot of rubber in those games.

He’s expecting more of the same tonight, especially given how well Chicago’s played to start the year.

“It’s even more fun when we’re both playing well,” he explained. “It’s a bigger challenge for us, plus we’ve had a couple of days with no games.

“We really, really want to win today.”

Video: Bergeron questionable versus Wild; could that be the result of his latest fight?

Boston Bruins v Winnipeg Jets
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The Boston Bruins could be without Patrice Bergeron for Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Wild.

He’s currently listed as questionable, according to the Bruins. The details are sketchy right now, however Bergeron was involved in a fight with former teammate Blake Wheeler during Thursday’s game against the Jets, and didn’t play much in the third period — only four shifts and 3:15 of ice time.

(Granted, he did score in the third period, giving him 21 goals on the season.)

Why Bergeron was fighting is also worth debating.

Replays show Bergeron and Wheeler caught each other with a healthy slash in the neutral zone during the second period. A few minutes later, they squared up at center ice, with Wheeler landing a few heavy punches and a hard takedown.

“You don’t like seeing your star players (fight), but you also understand that it’s an emotional game and that stuff happens and at one point a player says, ‘Enough is enough and I’m going to stand up for myself,’” Bruins head coach Claude Julien said, as per the Boston Herald.

“From what I gathered there was a lot of slashes behind the legs behind the play and stuff like that. He took things upon himself. As much as you don’t like it, you can’t tell him he’s not allowed. He’s a big boy and he can certainly make some decisions on the ice. And it’s not the first time that he’s fought. But I like the fact that he doesn’t fight much.”

The Bruins are third in the Atlantic Division.

But with such a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, Boston needs Bergeron — considered one of the best two-way centers in the world — on the ice and in the lineup rather than dropping the gloves, which is something he doesn’t do often.

Bergeron has four career fights.

A potential loss for the Bruins could be a potential gain for the Wild.

Minnesota’s free fall continues. The Wild has won once in its last 10 games, and currently sits two points out of a Wild Card spot in the West.

 

Flyers staff give Gudas a talking to as questionable hits pile up

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1The list of questionable Radko Gudas hits — some of which he’s been suspended for and others he has escaped discipline — has grown again, prompting Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol to apparently have a chat with the 25-year-old defenseman.

There was no hearing for Gudas from his latest infraction, a major penalty for charging called against him for a hit on Buffalo Sabres rookie Daniel Catenacci on Thursday.

Catenacci has since been put on injured reserve, after he went through concussion protocol, as per John Vogl of the Buffalo News.

The NHL didn’t hand out supplemental discipline in this case, but the Flyers brass held a meeting of their own with Gudas, because hits like this could end costing Philadelphia results and precious points in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Flyers are four points out of a playoff spot.

“There’s a big picture to all of it in terms of our main concern,” Hakstol told CSN Philadelphia. “Our main goal right now is to do all the little things necessary to win hockey games.

“In keeping with that, how individually does everybody do their part to help us win games. That’s the basis of my conversation with Radko.”

In December, Gudas was suspended three games for a head shot on Mika Zibanejad. Earlier this month, he was given a major penalty and game misconduct for clipping in a game against the Habs, but escaped discipline for that, as well.

Gudas, who didn’t want to comment on the hit on Catenacci, also spoke with Flyers GM Ron Hextall about this latest incident.

Asked about that conversation, Gudas told reporters, “Just making sure I pay attention and not get suspended again and make a good hockey play or make a good hit.”

After 11-game absence, Savard (oblique) back for Columbus

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These are pretty decent times for the Blue Jackets.

The team is 7-3-2 in its last 12, recently re-upped with Ryan Murray on a two-year deal and, on Friday, announced that blueliner David Savard has been activated from IR after missing the last 11 games to an oblique strain.

Savard, 25, was a pretty integral part of John Tortorella’s defense when healthy. He averaged over 24 minutes per night and had 15 points through 39 games prior to being sidelined by the ailment.

He’ll presumably draw back into the lineup when the Jackets take on Ottawa on Saturday. No word yet on a corresponding roster move.

Who’s got the best/worst combined special teams?

The Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, (8), of Russia, leaps in the air in celebration after scoring his 500th career NHL goal during the second period of a hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Recently, the Washington Capitals went five whole games without scoring a power-play goal.

It was a real nightmare for those guys.

Despite the fact Washington went 3-1-1 over those five games, one headline called it a “troubling power-play drought” — which tells you how few “troubling” things the Caps have had to deal with this season.

Overall, special teams have been a boon for Washington, which ranks first on the power play and fifth on the penalty kill.

Compare that to, say, Calgary, which ranks 29th and 29th, respectively. Now that’s troubling.

Anyway, here’s how all 30 teams rank when their special teams are combined:

Rankings

Not surprisingly, there’s a strong correlation between good special teams and winning hockey games.

In the left column, 12 of the 15 teams are currently in a playoff spot. New Jersey, Buffalo, and Montreal are the exceptions.

On the right, only four teams — Colorado, Detroit, Nashville and the Rangers — are in a playoff spot.