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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Bo knows goals; Avalanche, Islanders take control

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  • Bo Horvat shines again as the Vancouver Canucks take a 2-0 series lead.
  • The Montreal Canadiens win big against the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • Cam Talbot shines for the Calgary Flames.

Colorado Avalanche 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (Avalanche lead series 2-0)

It was not easy, but the Avalanche were able to get a 3-2 win over the Coyotes to take a 2-0 series lead in their First Round matchup. Andre Burakovsky scored the game-winning goal with just under three minutes to play in regulation to break a 2-2 tie. Nathan MacKinnon also scored a spectacular goal (see it below) to open the scoring in the first period that showed off his incredible gamebreaking speed. The Avalanche are now 4-0-1 in the return to play.

Montreal Canadiens 5, Philadelphia Flyers 0 (Series tied 1-1)

The Canadiens absolutely dominated the Flyers in their first game without head coach Claude Julien to tie their First Round series at one game each. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Tomas Tatar both scored two goals for Montreal, while Carey Price stopped all 30 shots he faced for his second shutout of the playoffs. The Canadiens angered Flyers coach Alain Vigneault by putting their top power play out on the ice late in a 5-0 game, but hey, this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. No mercy here.

Vancouver Canucks 4, St. Louis Blues 3 (OT) (Canucks lead series 2-0)

The Canucks young stars shined again on Friday as they beat the defending Stanley Cup champions to take a stunning 2-0 lead in their First Round series. Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson were the driving forces behind the offense, with Horvat scoring a pair of goals including the game-winning goal in overtime. The Blues might be considering a goaltending change going into Game 3 of the series this weekend.

New York Islanders 5, Washington Capitals 2 (Islanders lead series 2-0)

Alex Ovechkin finally got on the board this postseason with a pair of goals, including one in the first minute of the game on the game’s first shift, but it was not enough for an otherwise lackluster Capitals offense. The Islanders shut them down for the second game in a row and took a commanding 2-0 series lead. The Islanders are in complete control of the series and have completely turned their season around from the way they were playing during the stretch run of the regular season. The Capitals are still trying to find that next level.

Calgary Flames 2, Dallas Stars 0 (Flames lead series 2-1)

There is nothing wrong with the way the Stars played in this game. They just happened to run into a white hot goalie in Cam Talbot that played out of his mind. Mikael Backlund and T.J. Brodie scored goals for the Flames while Talbot stopped 35 shots to record his second shutout of the postseason. The Flames were able to get this win without the services of star forward Matthew Tkachuk who did not play after being injured in Game 2 on Thursday night.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks. Another huge game for the Canucks’ captain as he scored two more goals. He already had six goals this postseason, including four in the first two games of their First Round series against the Blues. His two goals on Friday were highlight reel goals, scoring a ridiculous shorthanded goal to start the game and then getting the game-winner in overtime.

2. Cam Talbot, Calgary Flames. Goaltending was one of the big issues for the Flames a year ago, and it has turned into one of their biggest strengths this postseason thanks entirely to the play of Talbot. He was a wall on Friday night in stopping all 35 shots he faced to help steal Game 3 of their First Round series against the Dallas Stars. Without him this game could have gone very, very differently.

3. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. The Max Pacioretty trade has become one of the rare win-win trades for both teams involved. The Golden Knights get an impact player. The Canadiens got an outstanding two-way veteran in Tatar and an outstanding young player to build around in Nick Suzuki. Both have been excellent at times this postseason, and on Friday it was Tatar’s turn to shine. He scored two goals in the Canadiens’ 5-0 win and was a huge part of their series-tying victory.

Highlights of the Night

Horvat’s first goal of the game was a highlight reel play as he flew through the Blues’ power play to score a shorthanded goal.

Nathan MacKinnon got things started early on for the Avalanche, showing off his speed to beat Darcy Kuemper for the game’s first goal.

Ovechkin scored two goals for the Capitals but it was not enough because of sequences like this from Brock Nelson and the Islanders.

Factoids

  • Horvat is the third different player in Canucks franchise history to score at least two goals in consecutive playoff games. [NHL PR]
  • The New York Islanders are 12-1 when they hold a 2-0 series lead in their franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Carey Price has seven career postseason shutouts, trailing only Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden (10 each) for most in Montreal Canadiens franchise history. [NHL PR]

Saturday Schedule

Game 3: Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET, NBC (Series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC (Avalanche lead series 2-0)
Game 3: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Vegas Golden Knights vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 8 p.m, ET, NBC (Golden Knights lead series 2-0)

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Talbot shuts out Stars as Flames take 2-1 series lead

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The Calgary Flames may not have had Matthew Tkachuk in the lineup for Game 3 of their First Round series against the Dallas Stars on Friday night, but they did have Cam Talbot.

Turns out, that was all they needed.

Talbot turned aside all 35 shots he faced to record a shutout in a 2-0 Flames win that gives them a 2-1 series leads.

Mikael Backlund‘s shorthanded goal goes in the books as the game-winner for the Flames, while T.J. Brodie added a late insurance marker on a booming slap shot. But even with those two goal scorers, Talbot was the star of this game for Calgary in what was a big bounceback performance for the starting goalie.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Talbot got the start in the Flames’ Game 2 loss on Thursday, surrendering five goals in what was probably his worst game of the postseason so far.

Despite that, Flames coach Geoff Ward decided to stick with his starter in the back-to-back situation (sometimes a risky call) and Talbot was more than up to the task by recording his second shutout of the playoffs (and the fourth of his career).

It continues what has been an outstanding performance for him in the NHL return to play. Outside of Game 2 on Thursday he has been one of the Flames’ most valuable players and has played his way into the (very) early Conn Smythe discussion.

It is not an exaggeration to say he was the single biggest difference maker on Friday.

Even though the Flames ended up getting the upper hand on the scoreboard, they were probably not the better team overall as the Stars carried the play for much of the night. Dallas held a pretty commanding territorial edge and seemed to get the best of the chances. But sometimes all you need to get a win in the playoffs is to have the better goalie, and that is what the Flames had on Friday.

They also should not apologize for it. This was a tough spot to be in playing a back-to-back without one of their best players. Maybe it was not their best overall effort, but if you are going to go on a deep run into the playoffs you sometimes need to find ways to steal games where you do not have your “A” game.

Tkachuk did not play for Calgary after being a game-time decision. He was injured on Thursday when he was hit by Jamie Benn and Jamie Oleksiak. There is no word on his status for Game 4 on Sunday.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Flames lead series 2-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Flames 2, Stars 0
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Islanders take 2-0 series lead as Capitals look flat again

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The New York Islanders look to be in complete control of their First Round matchup with the Washington Capitals following their 5-2 win in Game 2 on Friday night.

The win gives the Islanders a commanding 2-0 series lead, as they have completely shut down the Capitals’ offense through the first two games of the series.

For the second game in a row the Capitals scored first — Alex Ovechkin scored his first of the playoffs on the game’s first shift — but were unable to hold on. The Islanders received goals from five different players (Nick Leddy, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson, Cal Clutterbuck, and Anders Lee) and played their frustrating brand of defense that at times rendered the Capitals’ offense completely useless.

That was pretty much the story of this game.

Other than a great showing Ovechkin — two goals, a near-miss in the third period, and six total shots on goal — the Capitals’ offense looked like it was skating in mud all night. They struggled to get to dangerous scoring areas, they could not get any kind of a consistent push in the offensive zone, and when Ovechkin was not driving things there was nobody that even looked to be a threat to score.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Not having top center Nicklas Backstrom certainly hurt, and the other team on the ice absolutely has a role in the outcome, but the Capitals have not yet been able to find their game since the 2019-20 season resumed.

They won only one of their three Round-Robin games and so far have not scored more than two goals in any of the five postseason games they have played. It has been a carryover from the way they played during the stretch run of the regular season.

What has to be especially frustrating is that this is the second game in a row they started off with the lead only to allow the Islanders to later take over. In Game 1 they held a 2-0 lead until the final minute of the second period, only to watch Braden Holtby allow a soft goal and the Islanders pour in four unanswered goals for the win.

On Friday, they got the early goal from Ovechkin and allowed the Islanders to strike for two goals to take the lead. When Ovechkin tied the game in the second period, they allowed the Islanders to reclaim the lead just 15 seconds later when Jakub Vrana turned the puck over at the Islanders’ blue line, giving Nelson a clear breakaway.

For the Islanders this entire postseason remains a complete 180 turnaround from the team we saw at the end of the regular season. That team was a sinking ship trending in the wrong direction as they had lost 11 of 13 and seven in a row. Since the restart they have gone 5-1 and have put themselves in a great position to advance.

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders (NYI lead 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Islanders 4, Capitals 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Islanders 5, Capitals 2
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Matthew Tkachuk out for Flames in Game 3

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Some bad injury news for the Calgary Flames going into Game 3 of their First Round playoff series against the Dallas Stars.

Matthew Tkachuk will not play on Friday night after being listed as a game-time decision earlier in the day.

He will be replaced on the second line by Tobias Rieder.

Tkachuk was injured early in the third period of Thursday’s game (a 5-4 Stars win) when he was sandwiched between Jamie Oleksiak and Jamie Benn. It was the third different time during the game that Tkachuk had to exit the game and go down the tunnel. That time, he did not return to the game.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There is no easy way to replace a player like Tkachuk. While he has the reputation for being a pest that always plays right on the line (and sometimes over it) to infuriate his opponents, he is also a legit first-line player and one of the Flames’ go-to offensive players.

He finished the regular season with 61 points (23 goals, 38 assists) in 68 games.

So far this postseason he has a goal and an assist for the Flames.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Series tied 1-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.