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.

Another slow start undermines Stars in loss to Lightning

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EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Another slow start doomed the Dallas Stars.

Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final slipped away from the Western Conference champions in a hurry Wednesday night, with a suddenly vulnerable Anton Khudobin allowing two early goals and the Tampa Bay Lightning once again showing how difficult it is play catchup against them in a 5-2 victory.

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos scored in the first seven minutes for Tampa Bay, which was just was getting started. A trio of goals in the second period built the lead to 5-1, ending an ugly night for Khudobin.

”They made two good shots early,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. ”They capitalized on their chances and we didn’t.”

The Stars also started slowly in Game 2, yielding three first-period goals – two of them on the power play – on the way to a 3-2 loss.

Now, they’re facing a 2-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Friday night.

”We’ve got to regroup,” said Stars forward Jason Dickinson, who had a short-handed goal in the opening period.

”It’s 2-1. They’re up one,” defenseman John Klingberg said. ”We’re going to even the series on Friday.”

While Khudobin is one of the biggest reasons Dallas is back in the Final for the first time in 20 years, he hasn’t been at this best since winning Game 1.

He stopped just 24 of 29 shots in two periods Wednesday night. Over the last two games, he’s yielded eight goals in 60 shots.

With the Stars trailing by four goals and the teams set to play the next two games of the series on consecutive nights, coach Rick Bowness pulled Khodobin after the second period. Jake Oettinger finished up, stopping the only three shots he faced.

”The kid has battled so hard the whole playoffs, so I just gave him a breather. Back to back coming up, give (Oettinger) some more experience, but more just to give Dobie a break,” Bowness said of the move.

”Listen, he’s been a rock for us back there. We don’t get here without him,” the coach added. ”No one gets to the Final without great goaltending.”

Khodobin wasn’t alone in having an off night.

Defenseman Miro Heiskanen made an uncharacteristic mistake, turning the puck over in his own zone on Tampa Bay’s first goal. Bad penalties were a problem, too, with one of them leading to Victor Hedman‘s powerplay goal that put the Lightning up 3-1 less than a minute into the second period.

It was all Tampa Bay after that.

”We lost our team play, we lost our intensity and we lost our focus,” Bowness said. ”When you do that, a team like that is going to make you look real bad, which they did.”

Steven Stamkos on Game 3 return: ‘It was a dream come true’

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The cheer from the bench was just a little bit louder. The smile on Steven Stamkos‘ face was bigger than usual.

After 211 days away, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain returned to the lineup for Game 3 and made an impact — albeit in a brief appearance. Stamkos played only five shifts and 2:47 during Tampa’s 5-2 victory, but it was a worthwhile experience.

His goal 6:58 into the game gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead over the Dallas Stars. It was in early March that Stamkos underwent core muscle surgery and it has been two months since he was re-injured and miss everyone of Tampa’s Stanley Cup Playoff games before Game 3. So when his wrist shot flew over Anton Khudodin’s blocker, it was a moment he’d been waiting a long time for.

“At this time of the year you want to do anything you can to help your team win,” said Stamkos, who found out he’d be playing after Tuesday’s skate. “I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is and to be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true, and I’m so proud of these guys to be able to share that moment with them.”

[Three Takeaways from Game 3]

The reaction of Lightning head coach Jon Cooper after the goal summed up the moment. Along with the general happiness of taking a two-goal lead in the first seven minutes of the game, there was also a bit of disbelief.

“You marvel at players,” Cooper said. “He only had five shifts, but probably an efficient five shifts as you’re ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game. … It was pretty damn cool.”

Before Wednesday night, Stamkos last played Feb. 25, with his last goal coming Feb. 20. It was a long road back to the ice. The March pause saw the 2019-20 NHL season hang in the balance, and when there was clarity on a resumption of play, he had to exit the lineup again hoping to come back during the playoffs. Fortunately for him, the depth of the Lightning allowed a return to be possible.

“Our group feels like we’ve got a recipe in how we want to play,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “No matter who’s going over the boards, no matter how many times you’re asked to go over, you see the effort and will from everybody, and that’s what’s been the key for us.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stamkos had been left to be the team’s biggest cheerleader while he waited for the day he’d return to the lineup. Those moments watching were excruciating for him, and each series win brought another lifeline.

“It’s so painful to just sit and watch and feel like you have no part of the game because you’re way more nervous watching the games,” Stamkos said. “You want to have a say and you want to contribute.”

All that work since March has paid off. While Stamkos wasn’t ready to declare his status for the remainder of the series, his road to get to this point has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get back to a spot where he could play,” said Brayden Point. “Just seeing him day in, day out, the positivity he brings and the leadership he brings even when he’s not playing has been huge for us. For us to see him work that hard to get back in the lineup and then score one, it’s pretty inspirational for our bench.”

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
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

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
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

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

3 Takeaways: Lightning’s top players shine in Game 3 win

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Steven Stamkos briefly returned to the lineupand scored a goal! — while the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s top line continued to dominate in a 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 3 on Wednesday night.

The Lightning now lead the series by a 2-1 margin.

The two teams meet in Game 4 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream).

Now, three takeaways from the Lightning win.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Steven Stamkos didn’t play long, but he made an impact

The Lightning have been waiting to see Stamkos in an NHL game for nearly seven months. When he finally got back into the lineup, he played less than three minutes before exiting the game.

He did, however, manage to make a significant impact in those three minutes by delivering a bit hit on his first shift and then scoring a goal (on a beautiful play!) on his first shot.

He barely played after that, and in a way made some history.

Now we go back to wondering when, or if, we will see him again in this series.

His injury situation is not the only one to keep an eye on from this game.

Dallas also had a couple of issues as top-line winger Alexander Radulov exited the game late after being involved in a big collision behind the net, while Denis Gurianov was also hit in the face by a puck while sitting on the bench.

2. Victor Hedman looks unstoppable right now

Yeah, Stamkos briefly played and scored. Sure, the top line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat all scored goals and finished with two points each. But the player that really powers this machine remains Hedman from the blue line, and wow was he great — again! — on Wednesday.

He made a sensational defensive play early in the first period to disrupt a Denis Gurianov breakaway, played 22 minutes, scored his 10th goal of the playoffs, finished with a game-high three points, and once again helped dictate the pace of the game when he was on the ice. During 5-on-5 play the Lightning outshot the Stars 11-5 with Hedman on the ice, while they also scored a pair of goals.

All postseason Kucherov and Point have been the Lightning’s Conn Smythe favorites, but Hedman is starting to play his way into that discussion if they can win this series.

3. Anton Khudobin gets pulled

Khudobin was the key factor in the Stars’ getting through the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final.

The were going to need another performance like that against Tampa Bay.

After getting one of those performances in Game 1, he has not quite matched that over the past two games.

Khudobin was benched after giving up five goals on 29 shots in just two periods of play on Wednesday, dropping his save percentage in the series to .906.

Even with that it would be unfair to put all of this on him. The Lightning scored a couple of fluky goals in Games 1 and 2 that went in off of weird bounces, while the Stars have also struggled to stay out of the penalty box at times.

Tampa Bay’s first goal on Wednesday came on a Nikita Kucherov breakaway after Miro Heiskanen was guilty of an ugly turnover in the neutral zone that put the puck right onto Kucherov’s stick. Just a few minutes later Stamkos scored his goal when the Stars had another defensive breakdown that left him alone, and then an ugly line change contributed to Point’s goal.

So there were some issues outside of the goalie.

It is not that he has played poorly, it is just that he has not played as well as he did in the previous series. Given the talent the Lightning have on their roster, and the way they have been playing all postseason, they might need him to find that level again.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (Lightning lead series 2-1)

Game 1: Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Game 2: Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
Game 3: Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
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.