NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks v. Sharks, Game 3: Niemi, not choke job, spells doom for Sharks

Niemi4.jpgEastern Conference Finals, Game 3, Final (OT)

Chicago
Blackhawks 3, San Jose Sharks 2

Blackhawks lead series 3-0

The San Jose Sharks had their collective hearts broken tonight.

Friday
night was easily the best they’ve performed against the Chicago
Blackhawks in this series, blasting 46 shots on goal and controlling
play for most of the third period when the game was initially on the
line. Unfortunately, they once again were met head on by the nearly
unstoppable force of Antti Niemi and the opportunistic offense of the
Chicago Blackhawks.

Dustin Byfuglien’s goal 12:44 into overtime
all but put the final dagger into the season of the San Jose Sharks as
the Blackhawks take a 3-0 lead in the series
. Now, we all know it’s not
exactly impossible for the Sharks to come back after we witnessed what
the Flyers did against the Bruins, but I doubt we get to see history
made twice in the same season.

Now the popular dig will be to
speak about how the San Jose Sharks have ‘choked’ in this series,
especially considering their past performances in the playoffs. This
season it’s different as in the past the Sharks had never faced a team
quite like the Chicago Blackhawks, one that is deeper and more talented
than they are and a team that is supremely confident in every facet of
the game.

The Sharks did not choke in this game nor have they
choked in this series. In fact, the Sharks have played as well as you
could expect them to play against a team as great as the Hawks.
Unfortunately Antti Niemi has been there all series long, raising his
play to incredible levels in each successive game and no more so than he
did tonight. During a game that Evgeni Nabokov finally decided enough
was enough and he’d play like the shutdown goaltender his team needed to
be, this loss was made all the more painful by the ever spectacular
saves by Niemi on the other end of the ice.

The Chicago Blackhawks
were blasted by the media, and some fans, for not doing more leading up
to the trade deadline to shore up their goaltending woes. Despite
possessing the best team goals-against average in the NHL, the
goaltenders were near the bottom of the pack in save percentage and most
thought that neither Cristobal Huet nor Antti Niemi would cut it in the
playoffs. After the deadline came and went, and the Blackhawks blew
several big games due to horrendous goaltending, some claimed the Hawks
had made a terrible mistake and that a promising season was doomed.

Yet
as the regular season came to a close, Antti Niemi was named the
defacto goaltender for the Blackhawks in the playoffs, as the team
turned it’s back on high-priced disappointment Huet in favor of a
goaltender who was in just his first full season of NHL action. Signed
as a free agent out of Finland in 2008, Niemi was never expected to be
the savior in net that he’s become.

Niemi had been solid for the Blackhawks in the first two rounds,
but it wasn’t until they truly needed him to be spectacular that he
truly stepped it up against the Sharks.

Stopping 44-of-46 shots, Niemi exhibited incredible confidence,
agility and concentration – a performance the Blackhawks haven’t had in
net in the playoffs perhaps since 1991. He was masterful in tracking the
puck and when the Sharks put the pressure on the Hawks in the third
period and finally started to try and get Niemi moving laterally across
the crease. The Blackhawks should, in fact, feel fortunate Niemi is playing as well as he is after allowing an incredibly high amount of shots in two out of three games.

“Antti made every big stop for us over
four periods,” said Blackhawks wing Kris Versteeg.
“We relied on him too much tonight, but his great play is becoming kind
of
typical.”

Coach Quenneville was even more glowing over his goaltender’s performance after the game.

“I thought our goalie, you can use any adjective, but the best
superlative to describe his performance tonight, great or spectacular
was deserving. I think we rode on that, particularly even in overtime.”

For the most part, the Sharks had been forced to keep
their offensive attack to the perimeter and generally found most of
their shots coming from straight ahead. With a team that is able to
block shots and get back on defense as well as the Hawks, having Niemi
play as sharp as he was was the perfect frustration for the Sharks.
After the Blackhawks were able to tie the game after the Sharks took the
lead in the 2nd period, and then controlled play after that, you could
have expected the Sharks to perhaps fold under the frustration and
disappointment of losing yet another lead.

Instead, the Sharks responded with their best period of the series,
outshooting the Blackhawks 18-6 in the 3rd and drawing three penalties
to give them multiple chance to take a late lead. Unfortunately, the
stellar play of Niemi kept the Sharks off the board and it was none
other than Dave Bolland that provided the counterattack dagger that the
Blackhawks are known so well for.

Bolland has been instrumental in shutting down Joe Thornton all
series long, and made up for taking a dumb penalty with a breakaway goal
to give the Hawks a 2-1 lead with seven minutes remaining in
regulation. Choking? Not quite. The Sharks instantly responded by no
longer playing it safe and started crashing the net, taking advantage of
a late icing call to tie the game off a Patrick Marleau rebound goal.

The Sharks dug down deep and tied the game after allowing one of the
most painful goals of the season; they had failed to score on a
multitude of chances, controlled play and yet found themselves down a
goal late in the game. This is where the Sharks typically fall apart and
instead they pressed harder until finally solving the mystery that is
Antti Niemi.

In overtime the Blackhawks exerted their control once more over the
Hawks, and only some incredible saves by Evgeni Nabokov kept the game
from ending it earlier than it did. Eventually, it was one major
defensive gaffe that might have truly spelled disaster for the Sharks’
season.

Perhaps because it was Dave Bolland, and perhaps it’s because of
everything he’d put the Sharks through, but nearly every Sharks player
on the ice followed the puck on Bolland’s stick behind the ice and
somehow forgot about the very large and very skilled Byfuglien sneaking
his way in from the point. Even Nabokov, who had played so well up to
this point, failed to recognize the play that was developing. Yet it’s
Dany Heatley, acquired to be a difference maker, that made the biggest
mistake of all. He lost Byfuglien, his man to cover, who scored such a
quick goal off the pass from behind the net that Nabokov never reacted
until the puck was already in the net.

So now the Sharks will face another round of questions, ones that
look for answers when it comes to performance, production from the top
players, and whether this team has the heart to pull off what the Flyers
did just last week. Yet when the Sharks look back, they’ll be able to
say at least they really tried this time and the effort was always
there; this wasn’t a choke job, they just picked the wrong time to face
Antti Niemi.

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    Lightning vs. Stars: 3 keys to Game 5 of Stanley Cup Final

    Stanley Cup Final Game 5
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    The Tampa Bay Lightning will have a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, Livestream) when they take on the Dallas Stars.

    Injuries will again be a big factor as Steven Stamkos is set to miss yet another game for the Lightning as he continues to recover from a lower-body injury.

    On the Dallas side, Roope Hintz, Blake Comeau, and Radek Faksa will all be unavailable, leaving a significant dent on a penalty killing unit that has already struggled in this series.

    The Stars need to put together another improbable run this postseason, and it has to start on Saturday night.

    Let’s take a look at three keys to the game to get you ready.

    [NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

    1. The Lightning power play vs. the Stars penalty kill

    You could also go back to the No. 1 key from Game 4 and say that the Stars have to remain disciplined, but that ship seems like it has already sailed in this series. Plus, with the way the Lightning are clicking on the power play right now they may not need many opportunities to change the game and get a big goal.

    The Lightning have scored on six of their 15 power play opportunities in this series and are coming off of a Game 4 performance where they found the back of the net three times, including on Kevin Shattenkirk‘s overtime winning goal.

    This group is just too good, too talented, and too precise to consistently slow down. Add in the fact that the Stars are without Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, and Roope Hintz (three regulars on the PK, with the former two being two of their most utilized players) and it becomes an even bigger challenge.

    That is a lot to replace.

    2. Goalies on the back-to-back

    Most teams do not like playing their goalies in both ends of a back-to-back during the regular season, and we even saw a lot of teams use their backups during this year’s postseason to help reduce the workload.

    But no coach is going to sit their starter in the Stanley Cup Final, especially in a potential elimination game.

    So you are going to see Andrei Vasilevskiy and Anton Khudobin again on Saturday even though both goalies played an entire overtime game just 24 hours earlier.

    Back-to-backs are always a lot for goalies, but when you consider the workload these two have taken on this postseason they have to be running on fumes at this point.

    That has to be especially true for Vasilevskiy as he has played every single minute for the Lightning since the postseason began in late July.

    Given the way this series has played out the Stars are going to need Khudobin to carry them again.

    3. Tampa Bay’s top line

    The trio of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat has been dominant all postseason, and they are somehow getting stronger in the Stanley Cup Final.

    They have aleady combined for seven goals in the first four games of the series (four for Point, one each for Kucherov and Palat) while Kucherov has five assists.

    They have not only helped get the power play rolling again, but their 5-on-5 play has been equally dominant.

    Just take a look at the numbers this line is producing when all three are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play:

    • Total shot attempts: Tampa Bay 64, Dallas 26 (71.1 percent in Tampa Bay’s favor)
    • Shots on goal: Tampa Bay 31, Dallas 13 (70. 4 percent in Tampa Bay’s favor)
    • Expected goals: Tampa Bay 2.92, Dallas 1.06 (73.3 percent in Tampa Bay’s favor)
    • Goals: Tampa Bay 4, Dallas 1 (80.0 percent in Tampa Bay’s favor)

    All of that in just 48 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time.

    The Stars have no answer for them, and it hasn’t really mattered which defensive pairing they have tried to use as both Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg have been unable to slow them down. The Klingberg pairing has especially struggled, as the Stars have been outscored 2-0 and out-attempted 25-4 in the 20 minutes that pairing has played against the Kucherov line.

    (Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

    Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

    Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
    Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
    Lightning 5, Stars 2. (recap)
    Lightning 5, Stars 4 [OT]. (recap)
    Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
    *Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
    *Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

    *if necessary

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    ‘Black Aces’ in bubble have toughest job in NHL playoffs

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    EDMONTON, Alberta — When Joel Kiviranta capped a hat trick by scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime in his playoff debut in the second round, the young Finn had one real desire.

    ”I hope I get more games,” Kiviranta said.

    Kiviranta hasn’t come out of the Dallas Stars lineup since, and he’s emblematic of the impact a player can have in the fight for the Stanley Cup after practicing but not playing for weeks on end. They’re part of the taxi squad of extras called the ”Black Aces,” a 19th century poker term brought into hockey by Hall of Famer Eddie Shore 90 years ago.

    They’re woven into the fabric of the NHL playoffs, and these players have never had it tougher, given the confines of the bubble and no guarantee they’ll get into a game. They’ll gear up to get on the ice to join in the fun when the Cup is handed out, which could be as soon as Saturday night.

    ”They’re the guys that never get talked about and probably have the most difficult job in this bubble,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”To be practicing and working and doing all the other things to stay ready and not getting in, it’s a mental grind.”

    Some have grinded it out and been rewarded with a chance to shine on the big stage. In the Cup final alone, the Lightning got defenseman Jan Rutta back for his first game since Aug. 5, and the Stars plugged in Nick Caamano to replaced injured forward Blake Comeau.

    Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos returning doesn’t really count, even though he hadn’t played since February and was practicing with his teammates. Dallas may have to dip into its extras for Game 5 on Saturday night after Roope Hintz was injured in Game 4 a night earlier.

    Caamano hadn’t played since March 11, and that game was in the minors. But he tried to stay as ready as he could.

    ”It was weird going through your game day routine and stuff, but we knew as ‘Black Aces,’ you’ve got to be ready to go if your name’s called,” Caamano said. ”A lot of guys in that room have battled hard all playoffs here and you don’t want to come in and disappoint them, so you want to give your best foot forward.”

    Before that opportunity arises, it’s a lot of thankless work practicing and biding time. Rutta watched a lot of hockey while rehabbing an injury, and tried to stay in shape and ”not go completely mad” inside the bubble.

    ”When you’re a black ace in a regular playoff year, you’re at least with friends and family and all those things you get to enjoy while the ride’s going on,” Cooper said. ”Here, it’s just different. And so you make sure that you have these guys feeling involved because it’s a really tough job.”

    Stars assistant coaches have tried to mix up practice routine to break up the monotony.

    It has worked. Kiviranta scored a big goal in the Western Conference clincher and then again in Game 1 of the final.

    ”Our coaches have done a great job keeping them fresh on the ice with different drills and games and doing everything we can to keep them as fresh as is possible mentally and physically,” Dallas interim coach Rick Bowness said. ”I give those kids credit, and we needed them. They were ready to go. Your hat to them and our coaches, who are doing a great job with them.”

    The other challenge is making extra players feel like part of the team, even if they’re not contributing to the results. Caamano said his teammates did a great job with that, involving him in card games and other activities.

    And these guys could also play a major role, either in these playoffs or the future.

    ”What I’ve told our players is, ‘You may not feel like you’re helping right this moment,”’ Cooper said. ”They are helping and they may be helping the organization in a depth way today, but tomorrow they might be in our lineup. And so getting this experience I think is great for them.”

    Lightning-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

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    NBC’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Saturday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

    In by far the most competitive and only back-and-forth game this series, the Lightning came out on top in the first overtime game of this Cup Final. Tampa trailed 2-0 and 3-2 before taking its first lead of the game when Alex Killorn scored 6:41 into the third period to make the score 4-3. Joe Pavelski tied things back up with 8:25 left in regulation, forcing each club’s first overtime game since their respective Conference Finals series-clinchers. Offseason signee Kevin Shattenkirk, playing on his fifth team and in his first Cup Final, then netted the winner, 6:34 into the extra session to move the Lightning one win from their second-ever Stanley Cup (2004).

    Tampa can become the first team in the NHL expansion era (1967- present) to win the Stanley Cup the season after being swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season, the Lightning tied the NHL regular-season record with 62 wins but lost four straight games to the Blue Jackets in the opening round for an early playoff exit. Over the last six years, no team has more playoff wins or Conference Finals appearances than Tampa, and now they’re one victory away from their first title in the Jon Cooper era.

    [NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

    Pat Maroon, who the Lightning signed in the offseason, is the only player on the team who has won a Cup and he can become the third player in the expansion era (since 1967) to win a title in consecutive seasons with different teams after helping the Blues win their first-ever championship last year (Cory Stillman 2004 with Tampa and 2006 with Carolina … Claude Lemieux 1995 with New Jersey and 1996 with Colorado).

    Historically, a 3-1 series lead in the Cup Final has almost guaranteed an eventual Cup victory, with teams converting 33 times in 34 total tries. The only time a team blew a 3-1 lead in the Cup Final was in 1942, when Detroit lost to Toronto after leading the series 3-0.

    WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
    WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
    WHEN: Saturday, September 26, 8 p.m. ET
    TV: NBC
    ON THE CALL: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
    LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

    Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

    Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
    Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
    Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
    Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
    Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
    *Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
    *Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

    *if necessary

    Stars will not have Roope Hintz, Blake Comeau for Game 5

    Stars Game 5
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    The Dallas Stars will be without several key forwards for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC, Livestream)  as they look to fight off elimination and extend their season.

    Coach Rick Bowness announced that forward Roope Hintz will not be available for Saturday’s game after he was injured in Game 4 on Friday night.

    Hintz logged just five minutes of ice-time in the Stars’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    [NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

    That is a pretty significant blow to the Stars’ lineup, not only because Hintz finished the season as one of their leading goal-scorers (19 goals in only 60 games), but because they are already dealing with injuries to a couple of key depth players.

    In addition to Hintz, the Stars will again be without forwards Radek Faksa and Blake Comeau.

    Comeau has missed the past two games in the Stanley Cup Final, while Faksa has been sidelined since the middle of the Western Conference Final.

    What really makes this an issue for the Stars is Comeau and Faksa were two of their most used forwards on the penalty kill during the season, with Hintz also playing a minor role in that spot.

    Tampa Bay’s power play has caught fire in the Stanley Cup Final, scoring on six of its 15 opportunities. Taking those three out of the lineup is not going to help the Stars’ chances of containing the Lightning power play.

    More: Stars need one more improbable run to complete improbable season

    Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

    Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
    Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
    Lightning 5, Stars 2. (recap)
    Lightning 5, Stars 4 [OT]. (recap)
    Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
    *Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
    *Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

    *if necessary

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.