SAN JOSE—Never before Sunday afternoon had the San Jose Sharks seen Antti Niemi. Now they have until Tuesday evening to figure him out.
“One of the best,” Niemi sighed, but only under intense media scrutiny to rank his performance during the Blackhawks’ 2-1 victory at the HP Pavilion against other career heists in broad daylight.
Strange how the frugal Finn is allegedly the 'weak link' in Chicago’s hockey machine, yet he continues to outplay all these world class goalies. Then, when it’s time to reflect on a game or a save, Niemi seems utterly underwhelmed by what he has accomplished. In that category, he is alone.
“Our MVP today,” saluted captain Jonathan Toews after the Blackhawks seized a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference final with their sixth consecutive playoff conquest on the road. Not since 1992, en route route to the Stanley Cup final, have the Blackhawks so thoroughly earned their per diem meal money.
What’s more, even had they buckled Sunday to San Jose’s array of 45 shots, it still would have been their best Game One in quite a while. They’d dropped four openers in a row, most recently to Nashville and Vancouver, but Sunday’s effort was estimable and required. The Sharks, you see, are very good, and Sunday’s display had to make TV viewers want more of these two balanced teams that have so much to offer. NHL ratings are up; this game was excellent advertising.
The Blackhawks drew all of the game’s five penalties, including one on Dave Bolland in the last minute of the third period that was served by Kris Versteeg, a designated sitter who must have convinced referees he was guilty. With the man advantage, Jason Demers beat Niemi midway in the first period, but you’ve probably seen this before.
Given every chance to allow another one or two just to let things get out of hand, Niemi stoned the Sharks thereafter with upper body blocks, lower body sprawls and the occasional glove grab out of nowhere. Patrick Marleau, Ryane Clowe and Dany Heatley were among those who must have felt particularly cheated, but there were others.
Niemi was rather teal-proof in a contest that had a lively pace, plenty of bumping, and was worth waiting for after several days of league-enforced idleness. The Sharks’ super line of Marleau, Heatley and Joe Thornton was on for both Chicago goals. Patrick Sharp tied matters at 1-1 in the second with a drive through Evgeni Nabokov. Then Dustin Byfuglien, who wasn’t seeing much action around the crease, upgraded out to roomier spaces and drilled a rocket by Nabokov 13:15 into the third with Patrick Kane and Toews assisting.
HP Pavilion is infamous as the loudest, most inhospitable place to play in the league, but at this juncture, you sensed a certain angst in the gathering. It was as though the fans knew what the Sharks must have been thinking. They had a number of juicy opportunities to shake, rattle and roll early, and now Niemi was going to take his cold shoulder routine directly to the locker room, where he was awarded the gold-plated championship belt with “NEMO” on the front in black lettering, white adhesive tape. Not very fancy, just efficient, like the man himself.
“Nice,” said Antti Niemi.
He must have a nervous system, but it will take more time and a search party to locate it.