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

Stanley Cup Final Preview: X-factors for Bruins, Blues

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

With all of this time off until Round 4 begins, PHT’s covering all the skirmishes of Bruins – Blues.

Of course, the danger in drilling deep into the numbers and potential matchups is that you might obsess over “on paper” and forget certain human factors that might swing thing as much as a hot power play or a shutdown defensive performance.

Let’s consider some of the X-Factors of this series, and no, mutant superheroes are not involved … although Patrice Bergeron might have Wolverine’s healing powers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The inevitable rest vs. rust question

Most of the time, I’d roll my eyes and make other dismissive gestures about rest vs. rust.

In many cases, rust is merely used as an easy way to explain a defeat that has more complex, existential explanations. After all, it’s easier to cope with thinking “Ah, if only we were on the top of our game” rather than considering the possibility that the other team just mopped the floor with your team.

The Bruins’ 11-day rest does kind of push the envelope, though.

Chiefly, will Tuukka Rask cool off after not tracking pucks in a playoff situation for almost two weeks? He was absolutely on fire, and all the scrimmages in the world can only do so much to prepare you for a Blues team that’s looked like a buzzsaw at times during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All that tape

Maybe rest vs. rust should morph into three r’s, as you can add another factor: research.

While the Bruins didn’t know if they’d face the Blues or Sharks until Tuesday, May 21, Bruce Cassidy and his crew have had all that extra time to scout for weaknesses and tendencies regarding their opponents. If their video staff is really on point, you’d think that Boston may enjoy some subtle schematic advantage from getting extra opportunities to break down tape.

Interestingly, while rust might be a challenge for Bruins goalie Rask, that additional research could present a hurdle for rookie Blues netminder Jordan Binnington.

Rookies face challenges in adapting to the NHL, yet the reverse is worth noting: opponents haven’t had as many reps to expose weaknesses. That’s especially true in the exhausting grind of the postseason. If Binnington has some flaws to his game, the Bruins have had the rare luxury of gaining more opportunities to find those issues. For all we know, a few quirks could equal a tide-turning goal or two; maybe the Bruins can score on a wraparound where Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz barely didn’t in Game 7 of Round 2?

Health

All things considered, the Bruins and Blue seem as healthy as anyone can reasonably expect after three rugged rounds of playoff hockey.

Still, the best reasonable expectation for playing at this level into June is that you’re basically wearing so many ice packs it looks like you’re in a full suit of armor.

Frankly, teams aren’t particularly eager to divulge injury information, so we can only speculate about how healthy Zdeno Chara really will be if he can play in Game 1, and so on. So, yes, it’s interesting to see a sparse list of injuries beyond, say, Vince Dunn, but we really don’t know who’s playing at a level far below full-strength.

And, yes, 11 days provides a lot of time to heal — relatively speaking. Plenty of injuries suffered this time of year require longer than that, however, if they don’t demand surgery altogether. For two physical teams, the behind the scenes work of training staffs could be pivotal, even if they do everything they can to keep the rest of us oblivious about such ups and downs.

Bruins’ power play

Click here for a full breakdown of special teams, but it needed to be said: Boston’s power play is so powerful, it could swing the entire series.

Shenanigans

One thing that could bleed into the special teams discussion is if/when the teams get under each others’ skin.

Will Brad Marchand bait the Blues into taking foolish penalties, or might he shoot himself in the foot in trying to do just that? Does David Backes have some zingers regarding the team he once captained?

It seems like the Blues’ power play has gotten back on track, with at least one power-play goal in three straight games, and four during that span. So while Boston’s man advantage is the most dangerous, St. Louis could also make the Bruins pay if Marchand’s antics become a double-edged sword.

***

Ultimately, the 2019 Stanley Cup Final will come down to which players deliver, and if the coaches can put those players in the right situations to succeed. Rask and Binnington both have the capability to turn the series on its head with great play, too.

Don’t be surprised if the above X-factors make an impact, too, though. I mean, what’s really even the point if there are no shenanigans?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better defense?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Part of the reason the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues are the last two teams standing is because they’re deep at every single position. Both squads are dealing with key injuries on defense, but they also have quality difference-makers on the back end that can help lead their team to victory.

So let’s see who has the advantage on the blue line:

Boston Bruins:

The Bruins have been without one of their regulars, Kevan Miller. The 31-year-old is a solid penalty killer and he brings a level of physicality to Boston’s defense. But without him, the Bruins haven’t missed a beat.

Their top pairing is made up of 42-year-old Zdeno Chara and the best defenseman on their roster, Charlie McAvoy. Chara missed Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against Carolina with an undisclosed injury, but he’s expected to be ready for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins captain has clearly slowed down as he’s gotten older, but he’s also capable of turning in strong shifts in his own end and on the penalty kill. He’s also averaged almost 23 minutes of ice time per game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As for McAvoy, he missed Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final due to a suspension but he’s arguably been the most important defender on the team. The 21-year-old averages over 24 minutes per game and he’s picked up seven points in 16 games this postseason.

The second pairing has also been solid for Boston this spring as Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo have meshed well together. Krug is smaller and he’s the puck-mover that accumulates points and contributes on the power play, while Carlo is a bigger body that plays a sound defensive game.

These two have played together for just over 219 minutes during the playoffs. When skating on the same pairing, they have a CF% of 53.72 percent. When Carlo isn’t on the ice with Krug, his CF% drops to 45.93 percent. They’ve shown an ability to work well together and they’ll be an important part of shutting the Blues down in this series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Matt Grzelcyk has been the one constant on the third pairing, and he’s played relatively well. He has seven points in 17 games including a two-goal effort in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final. Connor Clifton, John Moore and Steven Kampfer have also contributed this postseason. Not many teams can say that they have a player like Moore sitting in the press box on most nights, so the Bruins clearly have some depth at the position.

St. Louis Blues: 

The Blues have been without Vince Dunn over the last three games. The 22-year-old had accumulated two goals and five assists in 16 games before being hit in the jaw with a puck. It’s unclear if he’ll be available for Game 1 on Monday night, but getting him back would be a boost.

Captain Alex Pietrangelo has been skating with Joel Edmundson, who’s been a solid partner for him. With Edmundson, Pietrangelo’s CF% is 52.61 percent. Without him, his CF% drops to 47.25 while Edmundson’s increases to 57.63 percent. That’s not to say that Pietrangelo’s been bad this postseason. He’s accumulated two goals and 13 points in 19 postseason contests this spring. The 29-year-old is also averaging 25:34 of ice time in the playoffs this year.

The second pairing is made up of Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, who have played over 316 minutes together during the playoffs. Together, they have a CF% of 48 percent. In their 83 minutes apart (small sample size), Parayko’s CF% leaps to 60 percent while Bouwmeester’s falls to 36.97 percent.

Bouwmeester, 35, is like the Blues’ version of Chara. He’s older and not as effective as he once was but he’s still trusted to play significant minutes for his team.

If Dunn can’t play, St. Louis will roll with Robert Bortuzzo, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, and Carl Gunnarsson, who is a pretty good depth player to have on the roster.

Advantage: St. Louis Blues

As good and as deep as the Bruins are on defense, I still think the Blues have a slight edge in this category. Pietrangelo and Parayko are both valuable parts while Edmundson, Bouwmeester, Bortuzzo and Gunnarsson are nice complementary pieces of the puzzle. We also can’t forget a young puck-mover like Dunn, who can easily push one of these players out of the lineup whenever he returns from injury. The Blues have an advantage, but it’s not by much.

Who do you think has the better group of defensemen?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Players with most at stake in Cup Final; Bergeron’s postseason

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Rotoworld’s Gus Katsaros breaks down Patrice Bergeron‘s performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Rotoworld)

• Travis Yost explains why getting an early lead in hockey is a good thing, and it’s not for the reason you might think. (TSN)

• Which team should you root for in the Stanley Cup Final? (ESPN)

• Which players have the most at stake in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final? (NBC Sports Boston)

Mats Zuccarello could be an intriguing addition for the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

Nolan Patrick will have to take a big step forward next season. (Broad Street Hockey)

• As good as Morgan Rielly was for the Leafs this season, there’s a chance he might continue to get better. (Leafs Nation)

• There have been rumblings about Phil Kessel being traded to Minnesota, but is that a wise move for the Pens? (Pensburgh)

• D.J. Smith has had to pay his dues on his way to becoming an NHL head coach. (Ottawa Sun)

• Chicago Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson has an interesting strategy when it comes to pulling his goaltender. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Winnipeg Jets have to find a way to stop taking so many penalties. (Arctic Ice Hockey)

• The Stars will benefit from the increase in the salary cap this off-season. (Blackout Dallas)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Marchand appears to avert injury scare in Bruins Cup tuneup

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BOSTON (AP) — Boston Bruins scoring leader Brad Marchand returned without missing a shift after appearing to hurt his left hand Thursday night when the team held an intrasquad scrimmage to tune up for the Stanley Cup Final.

Marchand bumped into Connor Clifton in front of the net ”and jammed his … I don’t know what he jammed,” coach Bruce Cassidy said.

”Injury risk was our biggest concern tonight. It will be Saturday when we practice at the regular time, and Sunday,” Cassidy said. ”He’s fine.”

With 10 days off between their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals and Monday night’s opener of the best-of-seven Cup final against the St. Louis Blues, the Bruins scheduled the scrimmage to stay sharp.

”It was good to get out there, and we appreciate the support,” forward David Pastrnak said. ”It’s starting to feel real.”

Tickets were $20 and the 17,565-seat TD Garden was sold out, with the proceeds going to the Boston Bruins Foundation. Fans chanted ”We Want the Cup!” and ”Let’s Go Bruins!” and gave the team a standing ovation after Patrice Bergeron tipped a puck between his legs during a six-on-five, pulled goalie simulation before the buzzer.

Captain Zdeno Chara and Bergeron, the alternate captain, thanked the crowd after the scrimmage.

Marchand skated off flexing his hand near the end of the first 25-minute half. He appeared to be in discomfort on the bench, but was back for his next shift.

Cassidy left it up to the players to decide how much work they needed.

Goaltender Tuukka Rask played just one half. Chara, who missed the clincher of the East finals for undisclosed reasons, played the entire game. David Krejci showed up at the arena with an illness and was sent home, but he should be fine for Monday’s game, Cassidy said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports