knew what he was up against in the Sharks Western Conference Quarterfinal showdown against the St. Louis Blues. He would have to be at his best because goals would be hard to come by for San Jose. The Blues feature a stifling goaltending combination of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, not to mention a machine-like defense playing in front of them.
As it turned out, it was mostly Elliott that Niemi was faced up against. Halak was injured early in the second period of Game 2 and Elliott took over for the remainder of the series. No dropoff there. All Elliott did this season was set a modern-era NHL record with a 1.56 goals-against average.
With the season hanging in the balance for Game 5 on Saturday, Niemi would have to be at his very best. And save for 45 seconds, he was.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, Elliott continued to play like he has all season and all series, consistently turning back San Jose shots. It resulted in a 3-1 Blues victory that wrapped up the series and ended San Jose’s season.
But the blame can’t be placed on Niemi, although the first goal he allowed is one he usually stops. Niemi made a handful of terrific saves to keep the Sharks in the game.
Let’s take a closer look at the goaltending matchup from Game 5.
The Blues aren’t the type of team that is going to pepper the net with explosive scoring opportunities. St. Louis is the best defensive team in the NHL and that’s how it wins games.
The Sharks are also a sound defensive team (8th in goals against during the regular season) and played that way in Game 5. Add it up and Niemi wasn’t forced to make a string of spectacular saves, but still came up big when called upon. He made 24 saves on Saturday.
Niemi played especially well in helping the Sharks kill off both of the Blues power play opportunities. San Jose wasn’t at its best on the penalty kill for much of the series, allowing six goals while a man down during the Blues first 16 chances.
Niemi helped the Sharks rectify that problem Saturday. He made an especially tough save during the Sharks first penalty kill, midway through the first period. On the Blues second power play, which came midway through the second, Niemi made a good glove save on a shot by St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Earlier in the second period, Niemi turned back a point-blank shot by Pietrangelo.
The Blues turned on the pressure in the third period and Niemi made a couple more quality saves against high-percentage scoring opportunties. Scott Nichol attempted a shot off a rebound that Niemi quickly stopped. Then, Niemi came up with one of his better efforts of the night when Kevin Shattenkirk passed the puck from behind the net to Jason Arnott, who blasted a shot from the right slot. Niemi turned back that effort as well.
Niemi finally had an off moment when he bobbled the puck after a shot by Nichol. The Blues Jamie Langenbrunner had a step on Sharks defenseman Justin Braun
and poked the rebound past Niemi, which tied the game at 1-1.
Forty-five seconds later, Niemi failed to stop his only other shot of the night when David Perron slightly redirected a shot by Pietrangelo and it snuck by Niemi to give St. Louis a 2-1 lead.
’s goal Saturday was a strange sight to see. Not because the Sharks captain scored, but because so much of the net was open when he gave San Jose a 1-0 lead with 39 seconds left in the second period.
Open real estate was at a premium during the series, and Game 5 was no different. Elliott used his quickness to put a wall up in front of the net, so Thornton’s score was a rare sight to behold.
Elliott demonstrated why he and Halak won the Jennings Trophy, allowing the fewest goals in the NHL during the regular season. He was spectacular at times, efficient at others. And he rarely allowed a rebound.
Elliott’s work Saturday started immediately. Ten seconds into the game he was forced to cover up on a quick shot by the Sharks. But then he didn’t have to do much for the remainder of the first period. San Jose generated just three shots during the first 20 minutes.
The second period was a different story as the Sharks turned up the pressure. Elliott allowed a rare rebound after a shot by Logan Couture
early in the second, but he was able to ultimately corral it. Moments later, Elliott made a nice glove save on a shot by Michal Handzus
For the last five minutes of the second period, the Sharks swarmed Elliott with pressure and high-percentage shots. Elliott repeatedly turned back San Jose’s attack. He finally cracked when Daniel Winnik
did some nice work around the net and shoveled a pass to Thornton, who positioned himself for a higher-percentage shot and slapped the puck into a surprisingly open left side of the goal.
But that was Elliott’s only hiccup. He stopped a good scoring chance by Handzus late in the third period and also helped kill off both of the Sharks power play chances, including one that began with 4:30 remaining in the game and the Blues holding on to a one-goal lead.
Elliott made 26 saves on the Sharks 27 shots.
Both netminders played well, but Elliott made one more crucial save than Niemi. Elliott withstood the Sharks flurry late in the second period and came up big on the second penalty kill with San Jose’s season on the line.
NIEMI: 24 saves on 26 shots, .923%
ELLIOTT: 26 saves on 27 shots, .963%