Why the Sharks should practice patience with Antti Niemi

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In this instant media age, it’s not surprising that the hockey public can turn on a goalie in a heart beat. Inexperience, bad luck and spotty defensive support are rarely accepted as excuses, even if there’s often more to a scoreboard meltdown than a shaky netminder.

Many NHL coaches are ridiculed for sticking with goalies in those bleaker moments, but let’s not assume that we know more about these individuals than the teams who handle them. The Philadelphia Flyers probably get a little too much heat for their history of goaltending struggles – they have been a consistently competitive franchise for a staggering amount of time, after all – but their recent carousel has been problematic. Was it really fair to pull the plug on Sergei Bobrovsky so quickly in Round 1 after he helped them so much during the season?

The polar opposite example is Roberto Luongo. He struggled against Chicago up until Game 7, but has been outstanding since then. He allowed one goal in that Game 7 OT win, pitched a shutout in Game 1 against Nashville and was beaten twice in last night’s double overtime loss. Maybe he has been upstaged by at times by Corey Crawford and Pekka Rinne, but he rewarded Vancouver’s patience by allowing just three goals in about 11 periods of hockey.

Niemi’s struggles against Los Angeles generates concern

Going into their second round series against the Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks faced (and still face) probing questions about Antti Niemi. It is indeed tough to deny that they should keep an eye on the Finnish sophomore netminder after he was pulled in two of the Sharks’ final four playoff games against the Los Angeles Kings.

Many people probably noted Niemi’s strong second half of the 2010-11 season and wondered if he’s melting down under the pressure, but if you review his game log from last year’s playoffs, it’s clear that Niemi is a feast or famine netminder.

Niemi’s hot-and-cold 2010 Stanley Cup run

During his 11 “good” nights, Niemi earned two shutouts, allowed only one goal three times and allowed two in six other instances. At the same time, he had 11 average-to-bad nights, allowing three goals four times and four or more during seven other starts.

On one hand, this shows that the team in front of him was very good, as he won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks while posting a 16-6 postseason record. That being said, Niemi also showed a pattern of following up a bad performance or two with streaks of red-hot play.

Why the Sharks should ultimately stick with Niemi, barring a total collapse

This indicates that he probably won’t be the type of goalie who carries his team every game – it seems like his only consistently dominant series was actually against San Jose last year – but it also suggests that he can help the Sharks win if they stick with him through the darker moments.

The Sharks have a tendency to bombard their opponents and generate the greatest amount of scoring chances, so they need a goalie who can handle counter-punching offenses. Sometimes they might need to deal with a shaky statistical night (or 11?), but Niemi could have the right kind of mental makeup to win behind this type of team.

Niemi produced a solid Game 1 against Detroit, turning aside 24 out of 25 shots in the Sharks’ OT win. Considering the Red Wings’ firepower, it almost seems inevitable that they’ll eventually “get” to him. The question is: will San Jose’s coaching staff have the patience to let him fight through it?

A patient strategy seemed to work out quite well for last year’s champion Blackhawks, at least.

Flyers’ Robert Hagg ejected for checking Kyle Connor from behind

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The Philadelphia Flyers did not have a very pleasant start to their Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg.

Already trailing 5-1 late in the second period, defenseman Robert Hagg was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for checking Jets forward Kyle Connor from behind into the boards.

Here is a look at the play.

Connor went straight to the Jets’ locker room for the remainder of the second period but was back on the bench for the start of the third period.

That play resulted in a little scrum after the fact that also saw Jets defender Dustin Byfuglien get a two-minute minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct.

Given that Hagg was ejected from the game you can be sure the NHL’s Department of Player Safety will take an extra look at it. We will likely find out later on Sunday or Monday if it is worthy of any additional discipline.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Zach Hyman to have hearing for late hit on Bruins’ McAvoy

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Given all of the late hits that have happened around the NHL over the past couple of weeks that did not result in a disciplinary hearing, it was easy to think Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman was going to avoid any supplemental discipline for his hit on Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy on Saturday night.

But this one may have been too late to ignore.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Sunday that Hyman will have a disciplinary hearing for interference.

Hyman was ejected from the game for the hit, while McAvoy, who just recently returned to the lineup, was injured as a result.

You can see the play in the video above.

[Related: Maple Leafs’ Hyman ejected for late hit on Bruins Charlie McAvoy]

There have been a number of controversial, late hits around the NHL in recent weeks from Ryan Reaveshit on Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson (that left Wilson concussed and still sidelined), to Tom Wilson’s hit on New Jersey Devils forward Brett Seney, to this hit by Dallas Stars forward Brett Ritchie on Pittsburgh Penguins defender Jusso Riikkola.

All were clearly late hits that were initiated long after their opponents had moved the puck.

While Reaves and Wilson were ejected for their hits, they did not rise to the level of supplemental discipline because they did not target the head or result in significant head contact. That is usually the line the NHL draws for late hits unless it is an egregiously late hit. This one did not appear to contact the head, but it was definitely late and sent McAvoy dangerously into the boards.

None of these hits are acceptable or examples of good clean hockey. They are not even examples of a player “finishing their check.” They are reckless hits on players that are not eligible to be hit, and in some cases are resulting in injuries. If those types of hits continue the NHL will have to start doing more than just ejecting and penalizing the players that distribute them.

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.

Devan Dubnyk mired in worst slump since joining Wild

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When he joined the Minnesota Wild during the 2014-15 season Devan Dubnyk helped turn around what was quickly becoming a lost season. At the time of his acquisition the Wild were going through a brutal six-game losing streak, were under .500 for the season, and pretty much everyone around the NHL was waiting for then-coach Mike Yeo to take the fall for the struggles.

Instead of firing the coach, the Wild attempted to address what was at the time their single biggest issue — goaltending.

So they sent a draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Dubnyk, and in his first start with the team stopped all 18 shots he faced in a shutout win over the Buffalo Sabres.

From that point on the Wild were fine for the remainder of the season.

Dubnyk more than solidified the goaltending position, recorded a .936 save percentage in his 39 starts after the trade, finished in the top-five in Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy voting, and even won the Masterton Trophy.

In the three full seasons that followed he has been one of the most consistent and durable goalies in the league. He played at least 60 games each season, he never had a save percentage lower than .918, while his overall mark of .920 was sixth best in the league. His even-strength number of .929 was fourth best in the league.

He has been, by pretty much every objective measurement, one of the best goalies in the league.

That is what makes his current struggles for a suddenly-slumping Wild team so surprising.

After getting benched early in Minnesota’s blowout loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night (he gave up three goals on the first six shots he faced) his season save percentage is down to .907, while he is currently mired in the worst extended slump of his Minnesota tenure.

Following that game Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said it would be sitting there and lying to say he isn’t concerned about Dubnyk. He also added he was concerned about a lot of players on the team, but that his goalie is definitely one of them.

Just how bad has it been for Dubnyk lately?

In his past nine appearances he has managed only an .857 save percentage, a level of play that has been unheard of for Dubnyk in Minnesota. It is not only his worst nine-game stretch since joining the Wild, it is rare for him to have a stretch of play where his save percentage dips under .900.

If you break the past four seasons down to nine-game stretches he has only been under .900 over nine games just 10 percent of the time.

He has been under .910 just 20 percent of the time.

That performance has played a big role in the team’s recent struggles.

The question is how much of a concern this should really be for the Wild?

On one hand, his recent track record is what it is. He’s been outstanding for more than three full years with the Wild, and he was probably a lot better than he got credit for when he was getting crushed behind some abysmal Edmonton teams.

But he’s also 32 years old, and there are a lot of miles on those tires, especially since becoming the starter in Minnesota.

Since Jan. 14, 2015 (when he was acquired) Dubnyk’s 253 games played are 14 more than any other goalie in the league, while only four others have appeared in more than 230. He has played more than 800 more minutes than any other goalie in the league and is one of only three goalies to face more than 6,800 shots (Cam Talbot and Henrik Lundqvist are the other two).

He’s faced 7,137.

That is a huge workload.

Given how good he’s been for so long it’s probably more than a little premature to suggest he is starting to break down. Especially when goalies are just like any other position in the league where players are prone to hot streaks and cold streaks. The NHL season isn’t about consistency for anyone; it’s about peaks and valleys where even the best players go through extended slumps. This is just one of the first times we have seen this extended level of play from Dubnyk in a few years.

But he is also not getting any younger and the Wild are still leaning on him pretty heavily.

If nothing else it is something to watch for the Wild as the season progresses because when he is at his best he is going to give them a chance every night. Lately, though, he hasn’t been at that level and it’s been one of the problems plaguing the Wild.

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.

The Buzzer: Stamkos, Giroux post four-point nights; Holtby blanks Blue Jackets

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Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Two goals and two assists for Stamkos, who helped the Lightning crush the Colorado Avalanche 7-1 and win their sixth straight game.

Stamkos scored the first two goals of the game 10:10 apart in the first period and they proved to be all the Lightning needed in the win.

Stamkos has been his steady self all season and has 12 goals and 30 points in 31 games now.

2. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers needed a win. They had just two wins in their previous nine games coming into Saturday.

With Sean Couturier out of the lineup due to injury, ‘G’ made the move back to center and thrived, scoring and adding three helpers as the Flyers picked on the Buffalo Sabres in a 6-2 win. The Flyers scored all six of their goals after the Sabres took a 2-0 lead. Giroux scored the winner in the third.

Giroux now has three goals and four assists in a three-game point streak.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Holtby needed that one after giving up 10 goals over his previous two starts — both losses.

On Saturday, there were no goals given up in a 28-save shutout against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets must be sick of seeing Holtby this year. In the spring, Holtby owned Columbus and he did so again on Saturday.

Holtby has two shutouts on the season now.

Other notable performances:

  • Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist to push his point streak to 11 games.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and two assists in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
  • The Kings, as a whole, deserve mention. Drew Doughty‘s ‘pathetic’ comment seemed to spark his team. Jonathan Quick made 29 saves in a 5-1 win against the surging Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 35-of-36 in a 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Louie Domingue had another solid outing, stopping 29 shots against the Avalanche.

Highlights of the night

Bob was pulled on the night, but not before making this ridiculous save:

Yikes:

Making dreams come true:

Patience is a virtue:

Factoids

Scores

Flyers 6, Sabres 2

Kings 5, Golden Knights 1

Bruins 6, Maple Leafs 3

Senators 2, Penguins 1 (OT)

Islanders 3, Red Wings 2

Lightning 7, Avalanche 1

Rangers 5, Panthers 4 (SO)

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 0

Sharks 5, Coyotes 3

Flames 5, Predators 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck