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

Can Atlantic Division teams keep rolling?

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The overall expectations for the Atlantic Division weren’t very high. Coming into the season, everyone believed that Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston would be the top three teams. Some had Florida making it to the playoffs in a Wild Card spot, but the expectations for the rest of the division weren’t very high. So far, those teams have done pretty well.

As of right now, the Maple Leafs, Lightning and Canadiens own the first three spots in the division. The Wild Card spots are owned by the Bruins and Sabres. That’s encouraging considering both Wild Card spots went to Metropolitan Division teams (Columbus and New Jersey) last season. The first team on the outside looking in to the playoffs is the Ottawa Senators, which means that Atlantic Divisions teams take up six of the top nine spots in the East.

Yes, it’s still early, but we have to acknowledge that there have been some pleasant surprises so far. With so much off-season drama in Montreal and Ottawa, it was easy to write those teams off. But they’ve both been incredibly solid during the first three weeks of the season. Both teams traded their captains away before the start of the preseason, but they’ve both figured out that the key to being successful in today’s NHL is speed. The Habs and Sens have found a way to play fast more often than not and they’ve been rewarded with some positive results.

The Sabres were one of the trendy “surprise” picks, but not many people were comfortable sliding them into a playoff spot. Thanks to a 5-4-0 start, they’re sitting in the second Wild Card slot behind Boston. Yes, a 5-4-0 record is nothing to write home about, but the Sabres didn’t collect their fifth of last season until Nov. 7. That’s an encouraging sign for a young team that is looking to create some positive momentum.

Teams like Washington, Philadelphia and Columbus, who are all out of the playoffs right now, will come around, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll come at the expense of all the Atlantic teams. Is Carolina for real in the Metro? That remains to be seen. Are the Devils good enough to finish in the top three slots of their division? Again, that’s not a slam dunk. So yeah, there’s a good chance that certain teams in the Metro will pick it up in the near future, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that certain teams in the Atlantic are better than we had anticipated. They’ll make the playoff race interesting.

The Florida Panthers will also be a factor here at some point. Not having a healthy Roberto Luongo has been an issue for them, but once they get him back they could go on a run of their own. The Panthers missed the playoffs by just a single point last season, and the addition of Mike Hoffman could take them over the edge.

The only team that can really be counted out at this point, is the Detroit Red Wings. Based on their success over the last three decades, a decline was inevitable (especially in a salary cap world). The Wings roster needs some major work, so don’t be surprised if this is more than just a one-year rebuild. Every division has a weak link, and the Wings are clearly it in the Atlantic Division.

So nothing is settled yet, but the Atlantic Division appears set on making their case for having five teams in the playoffs this season. There’s still a lot of race track left, but at least they’re off to a promising start.

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: Wang’s legacy; Should Oilers keep Bouchard?

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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.

• Charles Wang always fought to keep the Islanders on Long Island. He’s an important figure in the franchise’s history. (Newsday)

• Former NHLer Jordin Tootoo announcement his retirement from professional hockey. He became the first player from Ninavut to make it all the way to the NHL. (North Jersey)

• Teams have been pulling goaltenders earlier and earlier over the last few years. But how much does that make sense? TSN’s Travis Yost breaks it down. (TSN)

• Hockey fans have been blessed with plenty of goals so far this season, but will that continue? (Spector’s Hockey)

• With expectations rising quickly in New Jersey, the Devils believe they have a group of players that are ready to meet to compete at a high level. (The Trentonian)

• Younger players like Auston Matthews and Evgeny Kuznetsov are bringing “attitude” back to the game with their post-goal celebrations and fashion statements. Now, they only need other players to follow their lead. (The Ringer)

Joe Thornton, who has missed two weeks with an injury, is planning on joining the Sharks on an upcoming three-game road trip. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• For the Rangers to take the next step, they need to find a player that can put the puck in the net consistently. (Forever Blue Shirts)

• Now that he’s back with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, Lightning forward Tyler Johnson seems to be as comfortable as he’s been in a long time. (Raw Charge)

• Now that we’re over a year removed from the Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad swap, it’s easy to see that both teams are facing their respective issues with both players. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Even though the Los Angeles Kings are off to a rocky start, there’s still some time for them to get their season back on the rails. (Featurd)

• A number of former NHLers, including Kelly Buchburger and Jason Smith (both former Oilers) are coaching in the Western Hockey League. There experience and expertise make them valuable additions to any junior coaching staff. (The Hockey Writers)

• Now that the season is two weeks old, it’s easy to pin-point where certain teams need help. For the Bruins, it appears as though they need to swing a deal for another forward that can chip in offensively. (NBC Sports Boston)

• The Buffalo Sabres have a trio of Swedes in the minors that are just waiting for their opportunity to help the big club in the near future. (Elite Prospects)

• Blackhawks prospect Collin Delia found out the hard way that the moorings in the minors aren’t as solid as they are in the NHL. (In Goal Mag)

• Oilers rookie defender Evan Bouchard has been solid in his first five games in the NHL, but sending him back to junior could make sense because of an upcoming expansion draft. (Oilers Nation)

• The Carolina Hurricanes are going to have to figure things out on special teams if they want to make a push for a playoff spot this season. (Section 328)

• Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov has been a consistent force on the blue line since he came into the NHL, so there’s no point in questioning him now. (NBC Sports Philly)

• Puck Junk has put together all the rookie cards of every head coach in the NHL. (Puck Junk)

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.

The Buzzer: Lightning dominate, Sabres rally and Gaudreau shines

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Three Stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. Point was a big part of the Lightning’s dominant offensive showing in Chicago on Sunday night when they scored six goals and put 55 shots on goal. Point was a factor in three of those goals, scoring one of them and assisting on two others to give him five goals and eight total points on the season. We know the Lightning have superstars at the top of the lineup, but it is the emergence of secondary players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Point himself over the past four years that have made this team such a force in the Eastern Conference.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. With Mike Smith struggling in the early part of the season could backup David Rittich start to steal some playing time away from him? He has certainly made a strong case for himself over his past two starts, including Sunday’s game in New York where he stopped 43 out of 44 shots in a 4-1 Flames win. In his two starts this season he has now stopped 67 out of 70 shots.

3. Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres ruined the Ducks’ celebration of Paul Kariya on Sunday night by scoring four consecutive goals to erase what was a two-goal deficit midway through the second period. Kyle Okposo started the rally with his first goal of the season late in the period, and then helped complete when he set up Rasmus Ristolainen‘s game-winning goal early in the third period. Okposo had recorded just three assists in his first eight games before Sunday, so it was a much-needed big night for him on the scoresheet.

Ducks defense looks awful again

The Anaheim Ducks have been relying on their goalies — particularly starter John Gibson — more than any other team in the league this season, surrendering shots and chances at an unsustainable rate.

So far, Gibson has been able to keep them in it and steal a bunch of wins.

This weekend Gibson and Ryan Miller were not able to bail them out.

After getting outshot by a 45-18 margin in a 3-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night, they were outshot 45-28 in their 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. That is 90-46 over two games in 48 hours. That is … terrible.

They are giving up more than 37 shots on goal per game and have been outshot by a ridiculous margin on the young season.

This team looks like a house of cards teetering on the verge of a collapse if their goalies slip up even a little bit. This is, quite simply, not a good hockey team right now no matter what their record says.

Highlights of the Night

Johnny Gaudreau was a big part of the Flames’ win in New York on Sunday night by scoring a pair of goals, both of them coming on wonderful individual efforts. His second goal — which was also his 300th career point — was the best of the two.

The Lightning were dominant all night and it started very early with this slick Nikita Kucherov goal to put them on the board first.

He made that look easy.

Factoids

The Tampa Bay Lightning set an NHL record for most shots in a single period when they recorded 33 in the second period (we highlighted that here). They also set a franchise record for most shots on goal in a game.

The Calgary Flames won their first game at Madison Square Garden since 2008.

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Calgary Flames 4, New York Rangers 1

Buffalo Sabres 4, Anaheim Ducks 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blackhawks’ defense still has long way to go

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been off to a better-than-expected start this season, especially when you consider they had Corey Crawford, arguably their most important player, for just two of their first seven games entering Sunday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That surprising start has been primarily due to Jonathan Toews‘ offensive resurgence, Alex DeBrincat‘s continued rise to stardom, and some good fortune in a bunch overtime/shootout games. They still have their flaws, particularly on their defense, and wow did a lot of those flaws get exposed on Sunday night against one of the league’s best teams.

The defense should have been viewed as the weak link on the roster heading into the season, and so far there has not been much to change that perception.

That is especially true after Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Entering Sunday’s game the Blackhawks were 26th in the NHL in goals against and 25th in terms of shots allowed per game. Neither number is anywhere close to good enough, and they are almost certain to be looking even worse after Sunday’s game that saw the Lighting set an NHL record and completely overwhelm the Blackhawks in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

At times it looked like two teams playing two completely different sports.

Just consider these two numbers: 55 and 33.

What do those numbers represent?

The former is the number of shots on goal the Blackhawks surrendered to the Lightning for the entire game, while the latter is how many they gave up in the second period alone, setting an NHL record for most shots on goal in a single period. During that second period the Lightning outshot the Blackhawks by a 33-5 margin and outscored them 3-0. It was, to say the least, the difference in the game.

It also helped show just how far the Blackhawks’ defense has to go to make them a serious contender in the meatgrinder that is the NHL’s Central Division.

It is only the ninth time since the 2010 season that a team recorded 55 shots on goal in a game that did not go to overtime.

The Blackhawks have been trending in the wrong direction defensively (both from a shots and goals perspective) for several years now as that core on defense has gotten older or moved on to new teams. Once a team that dominated opponents territorially and never let them set up shop in their end, the Blackhawks are now a team that consistently bleeds shots and scoring chances against and needs its goaltenders to be great to have a chance.

There are several problems with the unit.

First, Connor Murphy has not played a singe game this season as he recovers from a back injury. He was probably one of the team’s best defenders a year ago and has been a major loss at the start of the year.

Gustav Forsling, who has shown promise over the past two years, has also not played yet this season due to a wrist injury.

When it comes to the players that are in the lineup there just isn’t enough high end talent here.

At the top you have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom were cornerstone pieces of the Blackhawks’ mini-dynasty between 2010 and 2015, but are now on the wrong side of 33 and are a fraction of what they once were (especially Seabrook). Once you get beyond them there is just a stunning lack of quality depth as they have tried to piece together a makeshift unit of various veteran free agents like Jan Rutta, Brandon Mannning, Erik Gustafsson, and Brandon Davidson.

None of them are particularly great.

Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, has shown a ton of promise this season and is already playing some big minutes and being given a major role at the age of 19. But he’s still 19, and he’s going to have some growing pains at times and he had a particularly tough time on Sunday matching up against the Lightning.

Jokiharju and 2018 first-round pick Adam Boqvist are going to be the future of that unit, and the return of a healthy Murphy at some point should help at least a little bit in the short-term.

But they are probably a few years and a lot of help around them from being where they need to be as a unit. Even with the strong start to the season the Blackhawks’ best hope to contend this season is going to be continued strong play from their forwards and the return of a healthy and productive Corey Crawford.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.