Canadiens reward Antti Niemi with extension after turnaround

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There weren’t many positives in Montreal during the 2017-18 regular season, but Antti Niemi‘s play was certainly one of them. On Tuesday, the team announced that the veteran has signed a one-year, $950, 000 deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st.

Niemi’s journey to the Canadiens organization was a bumpy one. After being bought out by the Dallas Stars last offseason, he signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started the year as Matt Murray‘s backup, but he quickly found himself on waivers in October after a string of poor performances (he had an 0-3 record, a 7.50 goals-against-average and a .797 save percentage during his time with the Pens).

The Florida Panthers decided to put in a waiver claim on the 34-year-old netminder, but not much changed in his play during his brief time in the Sunshine State. He suited up in just two games with the Panthers before going back on waivers in November.

With Carey Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens decided to roll the dice on Niemi and that’s when things changed for the better. By reuniting with his former goalie coach in Chicago, Stephane Waite, Niemi was able to get his career back on the rails. The pair won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 and, again, they showed that they form a great partnership.

In 19 games with an injury-riddled Canadiens team, Niemi had a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable when you consider just how bad the Canadiens were in 2017-18.

As great of a story as this is, this new one-way contract doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be one of the two goalies on the NHL roster come October. Carey Price will be the undisputed starter going into camp, while Niemi and Charlie Lindgren battle for the backup job. Both players are on one-way deals, so the Habs will be paying one of their AHL goalies a lot of money no matter who heads down to AHL Laval next fall. Both contracts can totally be buried in the minors without counting toward the salary cap.

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.

Sharks showed in Round 1 they’re not done yet

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For the better part of the past two decades the San Jose Sharks have been a near constant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, making 18 appearances in 20 years. Because that run has not yet resulted in a Stanley Cup — and at times resulted in some crushing, premature postseason exits — they have usually been more of a playoff punchline than a celebrated success story for being a contender almost every year. With every passing year that does not result in a championship, and with every year that foundational  players like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski get older, we seem to forget about them a little more.

It’s usually the old “their window has closed” situation as we wait for them to fade into obscurity.

Then two years ago, after everyone seemingly gave up on them being a serious threat to ever win it all, they finally had a breakthrough and reached the Stanley Cup Final.

They entered the playoffs this year as somewhat of an afterthought once again (hey, I admit, I was guilty of that too), lost beneath the hype of the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and even their second-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights. But after making quick work of an overmatched and hapless Ducks team in round one, outscoring them by an 16-4 margin in a clean four-game sweep, they are now in the second-round of the playoffs ready to take on the Vegas with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. They have done all of this while only getting 47 games out of Thornton who has not played since the end of January.

So what has been the key to their success? For one, they finally have a goalie they can count on in the playoffs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

One of the biggest issues that plagued some of the great Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau teams in the early-mid 2000s were some truly disastrous postseason goaltending performances from the likes of Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi that completely sunk the team’s chances. Those postseason shortcomings were then hung on the two guys at the top of the lineup (Thornton and Marleau) even though they almost always produced.

Now the net belongs to Martin Jones, and in what is his third playoff run with the team he is once again playing some of his best hockey at the right time of year.

Jones was incredible in the first-round sweep of the Ducks, turning aside 128 of the 132 shots he faced. In his 34 playoff games as a member of the Sharks he now has a .930 save percentage. Of the 18 goalies that have appeared in at least 10 playoff games during that stretch, that would be tied for the third best mark in the NHL. That sort of goaltending will always give you a chance.

For as good as Jones has been, it is not just the goaltending that is sparking the Sharks right now.

They have also managed to reshape their roster a bit and work in some youth and speed, even from what the team looked like just one year ago. The Ducks, a classic rough-and-tumble “heavy hockey” Pacific Division team, were overmatched it by from the drop of the puck in Game 1.

When looking at the skaters that played in the first-round this season versus the first round a year ago (when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers) you can see where the changes come in.

After being a healthy scratch in all six playoff games a year ago, 22-year-old Kevin Labanc not only played in all four games in the first-round, he recorded two assists, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and generally played great two-way hockey. The same was true for 23-year-old center Chris Tierney as he came off what was a breakout regular season performance. Twenty-one-year-old Timo Meier, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015, saw an increased role this season and after scoring 21 goals during the regular season contributed three points in the first-round against the Ducks.

That influx of young talent has been a great complement to the established veterans already on the roster, including Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl, a trio that combined for six goals against the Ducks. And that doesn’t even include trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane whose two goal effort in Game 1 helped lead the Sharks to their first win of the playoffs.

Including playoffs, the Sharks are 16-6-1 since that trade while Kane has had three multiple-goal games during that stretch.

Given how impressive Vegas was in its first round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings — a series that pretty much mirrored the Sharks’ win, where a faster, more skilled team overwhelmed a slower, bigger, more physical team — the Sharks are certainly going to have their hands full in round two. But they have put themselves in a great position to make another deep run in the Western Conference in another year where everybody kind of forgot about them.

The Sharks are still here. They are still good. Given the makeup of their roster, they are not ready to go away anytime soon.

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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.

Penguins eye threepeat after reaching playoffs

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In closing out 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced some real doubts about making the playoffs. They had lost three of their last four games, dropping to a mediocre 19-18-3 record.

Many headed into 2018 thinking “if any team can overcome this, it’s the Penguins,” and that turned out to be right. In defeating the Montreal Canadiens 5-2 on Saturday, they improved to 45-28-6, clinching a playoff berth.

This locks up their 12th consecutive trip to the postseason, and Pittsburgh’s dreams of a third consecutive Stanley Cup victory remain alive.

(That #3elieve bit looks better in the image than it does in hashtag form, agreed?)

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Pittsburgh’s clinching win against the Canadiens embodied some of the better elements of the 2017-18 season.

The Penguins made their own luck at times, such as Carl Hagelin‘s brutal goal against Antti Niemi:

Ouch, Niemi. Ouch.

They also received some top-notch saves from Matt Murray, which admittedly harkens back more to previous runs than this season, as Murray’s dealt with injuries and other struggles. The standout sequence came as Murray made some big saves on shorthanded chances, including one against Habs speedster Paul Byron:

Also fitting: Patric Hornqvist scoring a goal from a dirty area right near the net, and the usual suspects generating points. Phil Kessel beefed up his career-high to 87 points thanks to a goal and an assist, Evgeni Malkin collected two helpers, and Sidney Crosby nabbed an assist.

***

The Penguins stand in a solid position to grab at least a round of home-ice advantage with 96 points and three games left. They’re unlikely to catch the Capitals for the Metro title (Washington’s at 99 points with a game in hand on Pittsburgh), but the Pens hold a two-point edge on Columbus for second in the division.

Considering their 16-20-4 road record, the Penguins likely covet at least some home-ice more than others.

Still, when you look around the league at all of the injuries and then consider all the mileage accrued by Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Kris Letang, and others, you wonder if Mike Sullivan might opt to give some of those workhorses a little time off down the stretch.

It’s a point worth considering, and it’s also remarkable that the Penguins enjoy the luxury to make such a choice with a week remaining considering how dire things seemed at times during the first half of this season.

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.

The Buzzer: Hall leads Devils; Jets’ Connor plays OT hero again

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Players of the Night

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Yeah, they lost, but it would have been a much worse outcome for the Anaheim Ducks if not for their goaltender. During a 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, Gibson was outstanding in stopping 39 shots while his teammates threw only 18 Connor Hellebuyck‘s way.

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils: The Devils earned a very important two points during a wild 4-3 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. After blowing a 3-1 second period lead, it was Hall (three points) who helped New Jersey claim the extra point with the winning goal 27 seconds into the extra period. He now has a career high 81 points.

Antti Niemi, Montreal Canadiens: Niemi earned his first shutout of the season with 35-save effort as the Habs blanked the Buffalo Sabres 3-0. Artturi Lehkonen opened the scoring and Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher added very late insurance markers as Montreal snapped a four-game losing streak.

Highlight of the Night

Devils forward Blake Coleman gave us this one-handed beauty against the Penguins:

MISC

Patrik Berglund scored twice as the St. Louis Blues stayed in the playoff hunt with a 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks. The Blues have won six of seven and four in a row to put themselves a point behind the Colorado Avalanche for the West’s second wild card. In his return to the lineup, Vladimir Tarasenko gave Anders Nilsson the old change-up for this goal:

• The Jets gave us a pair of pretty goals Friday night during their 3-2 win over the Ducks. First, check out Blake Wheeler’s hands as he set up Mark Scheifele’s 22nd of the season:

Wheeler was also part of this pretty passing play that ended with a Nikolaj Ehlers goal:

In the end, it was Kyle Connor notching the overtime winner for the second straight game:

David Pastrnak and the Boston Bruins dealt the Dallas Stars a big blow to their playoff hopes with a 3-2 win. “Pasta” scored the go-ahead goal with 11.1 seconds left in the third period, erasing a 2-0 lead the Stars had entering the final 20 minutes. The Stars are four points out of a wild card spot with seven games left in the regular season.

• No word if she was successful.

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Devils 4, Penguins 3 (OT)
Canadiens 3, Sabres 0
Blues 4, Canucks 1
Jets 3, Ducks 2 (OT)
Bruins 3, Stars 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sidney Crosby scores incredible goal, again (video)

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Oh, Sidney.

Just when you thought you’ve seen everything from Crosby, he has this uncanny knack and making sure you haven’t forgotten who he is and makes sure, once again, that you never will.

Crosby did Crosby things one again on Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. I can save you the explanation of the second-period goal, since it’s pretty incredible and, as a consequence, tough to explain in words.

Let’s roll some of the footage here, shall we?

And another angle:

Carey Price didn’t have a chance.

Crosby has grown pretty good at batting pucks out of mid-air. Poor Antti Niemi:

Remember this from John Tavares?

It was pretty special too and done in similar fashion:


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