2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 2: Once again, Niemi the difference for Hawks

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Niemi7.jpgBefore the postseason started, there were many early favorites for
who would be the recipient of the Conn Smythe at the end of the Stanley
Cup Playoffs. Of course, these would be dependent on the rest of their
team as well, but I doubt that anyone had Antti Niemi at the top of
their pool before the playoffs started.

Yet with the Chicago
Blackhawks two wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup over their heads
Niemi has been the consistent difference maker for his team, coming up
gigantic at the most crucial moment in games and always making the big
save when his team needed it most.

In Game 1, Niemi allowed five
goals in the first two periods as his team struggled
uncharacteristically on defense and he fought with his own confidence in
net. He didn’t resemble the consistent goaltender who played so great
against the Sharks, perhaps needing 40 minutes or so to get back in the
flow of the game after having some time off after the Conference finals.
Whatever reason it was, Niemi turned it around in the third period and
while he wasn’t tested a lot he made several big saves to preserve the
win for the Hawks.

Tonight, he looked very much like himself once
more. He was compact in his stance and playing forward in his crease,
challenging the shooters and tracking the puck through traffic much
better than in Game 1. He wasn’t truly tested until the second period,
when the Flyers started to really put the pressure on but it was in the
third period that Niemi truly shined.

The Flyers, facing a 2-0
deficit heading into the third, came alive and used their relentless
forecheck to knock the Blackhawks back on their heels. The pulled within
one goal when Simon Gagne’s slapshot hit a stick down low and knuckled
over the shoulder of Niemi and in. After that, Niemi was perfect as he
turned away shot after shot from the Flyers including several prime
scoring chances in the final minutes of the game.

He was calm and
collected in net, and with the Blackhawks once again struggling with the
offensive pressure of the Flyers he proved to be the difference maker.
He would finish with 32 saves on 33 shots, and ensured that the Flyers
would need to complete yet another miraculous comeback if they hoped to
win the Stanley Cup.

Before the series started, Jonathan Toews was
clearly the favorite for the MVP. With Toews completely shutdown so far
against the Flyers, and despite allowing five goals in Game 1, there
should be no doubt who the new leader is for the Conn Smythe. He hasn’t
always been perfect, but he has made the big saves and had the great
game when his team needed him most.

After the game, several of the
Flyers players stated that they didn’t feel they really tested Niemi
and they didn’t give him all they had. It’s tough to argue with that
statement, even when you consider the 15 shots on net they put up in the
third period.

Forget the amount of shots or the actual pressure
the Flyers were producing. Focus on the actual types of shots they were
putting on net. One thing the San Jose Sharks proved in the Western
Conference finals was that Antti Niemi is at his best when the puck is
shot low. He’s a traditional butterfly goaltender, and is nearly
unbeatable when he is on and the pucks are shot at his pads.

Don’t
you think the Flyers would see that, and think that perhaps the best
way to beat Niemi is up high? He doesn’t have the best upper-body
reflexes, not that great a glove hand. Yet in Game 2, the Flyers
consistently fired the pucks low, and Niemi turned them all aside. Now,
the Blackhawks defense has something to do with this as well but I can’t
explain my frustration while watching puck after puck being shot
directly into Niemi’s pads.

Niemi had a great game no doubt, but
the Flyers certainly helped.2

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.