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NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks v. Sharks, Game 3: Niemi, not choke job, spells doom for Sharks

Image (1) Niemi4-thumb-250x166-12034.jpg for post 1723

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 3, Final (OT)

Chicago Blackhawks 3, San Jose Sharks 2

Blackhawks lead series 3-0

The San Jose Sharks had their collective hearts broken tonight.

Friday night was easily the best they’ve performed against the Chicago Blackhawks in this series, blasting 46 shots on goal and controlling play for most of the third period when the game was initially on the line. Unfortunately, they once again were met head on by the nearly unstoppable force of Antti Niemi and the opportunistic offense of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Dustin Byfuglien’s goal 12:44 into overtime all but put the final dagger into the season of the San Jose Sharks as the Blackhawks take a 3-0 lead in the series. Now, we all know it’s not exactly impossible for the Sharks to come back after we witnessed what the Flyers did against the Bruins, but I doubt we get to see history made twice in the same season.

Now the popular dig will be to speak about how the San Jose Sharks have ‘choked’ in this series, especially considering their past performances in the playoffs. This season it’s different as in the past the Sharks had never faced a team quite like the Chicago Blackhawks, one that is deeper and more talented than they are and a team that is supremely confident in every facet of the game.

The Sharks did not choke in this game nor have they choked in this series. In fact, the Sharks have played as well as you could expect them to play against a team as great as the Hawks. Unfortunately Antti Niemi has been there all series long, raising his play to incredible levels in each successive game and no more so than he did tonight. During a game that Evgeni Nabokov finally decided enough was enough and he’d play like the shutdown goaltender his team needed to be, this loss was made all the more painful by the ever spectacular saves by Niemi on the other end of the ice.

The Chicago Blackhawks were blasted by the media, and some fans, for not doing more leading up to the trade deadline to shore up their goaltending woes. Despite possessing the best team goals-against average in the NHL, the goaltenders were near the bottom of the pack in save percentage and most thought that neither Cristobal Huet nor Antti Niemi would cut it in the playoffs. After the deadline came and went, and the Blackhawks blew several big games due to horrendous goaltending, some claimed the Hawks had made a terrible mistake and that a promising season was doomed.

Yet as the regular season came to a close, Antti Niemi was named the defacto goaltender for the Blackhawks in the playoffs, as the team turned it’s back on high-priced disappointment Huet in favor of a goaltender who was in just his first full season of NHL action. Signed as a free agent out of Finland in 2008, Niemi was never expected to be the savior in net that he’s become.

Niemi had been solid for the Blackhawks in the first two rounds, but it wasn’t until they truly needed him to be spectacular that he truly stepped it up against the Sharks.

Stopping 44-of-46 shots, Niemi exhibited incredible confidence, agility and concentration - a performance the Blackhawks haven’t had in net in the playoffs perhaps since 1991. He was masterful in tracking the puck and when the Sharks put the pressure on the Hawks in the third period and finally started to try and get Niemi moving laterally across the crease. The Blackhawks should, in fact, feel fortunate Niemi is playing as well as he is after allowing an incredibly high amount of shots in two out of three games.

“Antti made every big stop for us over four periods,” said Blackhawks wing Kris Versteeg. “We relied on him too much tonight, but his great play is becoming kind of typical.”

Coach Quenneville was even more glowing over his goaltender’s performance after the game.

“I thought our goalie, you can use any adjective, but the best superlative to describe his performance tonight, great or spectacular was deserving. I think we rode on that, particularly even in overtime.”

For the most part, the Sharks had been forced to keep their offensive attack to the perimeter and generally found most of their shots coming from straight ahead. With a team that is able to block shots and get back on defense as well as the Hawks, having Niemi play as sharp as he was was the perfect frustration for the Sharks. After the Blackhawks were able to tie the game after the Sharks took the lead in the 2nd period, and then controlled play after that, you could have expected the Sharks to perhaps fold under the frustration and disappointment of losing yet another lead.

Instead, the Sharks responded with their best period of the series, outshooting the Blackhawks 18-6 in the 3rd and drawing three penalties to give them multiple chance to take a late lead. Unfortunately, the stellar play of Niemi kept the Sharks off the board and it was none other than Dave Bolland that provided the counterattack dagger that the Blackhawks are known so well for.

Bolland has been instrumental in shutting down Joe Thornton all series long, and made up for taking a dumb penalty with a breakaway goal to give the Hawks a 2-1 lead with seven minutes remaining in regulation. Choking? Not quite. The Sharks instantly responded by no longer playing it safe and started crashing the net, taking advantage of a late icing call to tie the game off a Patrick Marleau rebound goal.

The Sharks dug down deep and tied the game after allowing one of the most painful goals of the season; they had failed to score on a multitude of chances, controlled play and yet found themselves down a goal late in the game. This is where the Sharks typically fall apart and instead they pressed harder until finally solving the mystery that is Antti Niemi.

In overtime the Blackhawks exerted their control once more over the Hawks, and only some incredible saves by Evgeni Nabokov kept the game from ending it earlier than it did. Eventually, it was one major defensive gaffe that might have truly spelled disaster for the Sharks’ season.

Perhaps because it was Dave Bolland, and perhaps it’s because of everything he’d put the Sharks through, but nearly every Sharks player on the ice followed the puck on Bolland’s stick behind the ice and somehow forgot about the very large and very skilled Byfuglien sneaking his way in from the point. Even Nabokov, who had played so well up to this point, failed to recognize the play that was developing. Yet it’s Dany Heatley, acquired to be a difference maker, that made the biggest mistake of all. He lost Byfuglien, his man to cover, who scored such a quick goal off the pass from behind the net that Nabokov never reacted until the puck was already in the net.

So now the Sharks will face another round of questions, ones that look for answers when it comes to performance, production from the top players, and whether this team has the heart to pull off what the Flyers did just last week. Yet when the Sharks look back, they’ll be able to say at least they really tried this time and the effort was always there; this wasn’t a choke job, they just picked the wrong time to face Antti Niemi.