Western Conference Finals Game 1 – Chicago Blackhawks win chess match on goals by Patrick Sharp and Dustin Byfuglien, open series with 2-1 win at HP Pavilion

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Monday, May 17, 2010 - Save & Share - One Comment


Western Conferenc Finals San Jose Sharks Chicago Blackhawks Joe Thornton Antti Niemi
#19 JOE THORNTON IS CHECKED ON TOP OF #31 ANTTI NIEMI IN 2ND PERIOD

Western Conferenc Finals San Jose Sharks Chicago Blackhawks Adam Burish Evgeni Nabokov
#20 NABOKOV BEATS A DIVING #37 BURISH TO LOOSE PUCK IN 3RD

Western Conferenc Finals San Jose Sharks Chicago Blackhawks Troy Brouwer Evgeni Nabokov
#22 BROUWER CRASHES NET AS #20 NABOKOV MAKES GLOVE SAVE IN 3RD

The Chicago Blackhawks came from behind to earn a razor thin 2-1 win at HP Pavilion in the opening game of the 2010 Western Conference Finals. 5-on-5 and shorthanded minutes was all that Chicago would have to work with, as the Sharks went the entire game without being called for a penalty by referees Paul Devorski and Brad Watson.

The Blackhawks used quick transition by the defense and speed through the neutral zone to repeatedly create oddman rushes and breawaway opportunities. Down by a goal in the second period, a hard skating Patrick Sharp got back into the rush from his own zone turning a 3-on-3 into a 4-on-3. Duncan Keith hit the trailing Sharp high in the zone, and the winger snapped a quick shot through the legs of defenseman Douglas Murray and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to tie the game at 1-1. Nabokov reacted in frustration, not being able to see the puck. Murray held his arms out wide, conveying his inability to do anything more on the play.

It was a slick scoring play by Sharp, and it helped turned the tide away from a Sharks team that was dominating play in the first and third periods. Head coaches Todd McLellan and Joel Quenneville were trying to match lines the entire night, and it would prove critical on the second Blackhawks goal. Quenneville was trying to match the top Toews line with the Pavelski line, and use his Bolland checking line on the Sharks “Gold Medal” line of Marleau-Thornton-Heatley. McLellan had the last change on home ice, but by dressing 7 defenseman he had to cycle through forwards to contribute minutes on the fourth line.

McLellan got the matchup he wanted on a faceoff in his own zone, the Thornton line vs the Toews line, but as the players skated back through the neutral zone the Bolland-Versteed-Ladd line stepped back on the ice. A Ladd wrist shot gloved up high by Nabokov allowed Quenneville to place the Towes line back on the ice for an offensive zone draw. Joe Thornton technically won the faceoff to Vlasic on his left, but Vlasic spun in the wrong direction and it was picked off by Patrick Kane. Kane skated up the boards and targeted a camping Dustin Byfuglien high in the slot. On the set faceoff play, Blake and Dany Heatley both cheated towards down low anticipating a hard rim around the boards. Blake tried to close the gap on Byfuglien, but the large Chicago winger snapped a shot passed Evgeni Nabokov far side.

The Sharks outshot the Blackhawks 45-40, piled up more scoring chances in front of the crease, and converted a lone power play goal on five opportunities, yet they were a step slower than Chicago all night. Clowe tried to railroad defenseman Brian Campbell in the opening minutes, but Campbell bailed out. Murray did not make a play on a puck around the boards, instead choosing to flatten Marian Hossa also in the first. Thornton, Marleau, McGinn and Setoguchi all made a sizable impact on the physical ledger, but the Sharks could not get enough on the body to slow a quicker Chicago team down.

The Sharks can focus on several opportunities Dany Heatley had from the slot, Joe Thornton being checked off a goal line rebound by defenseman Brent Seabrook in the second, or a flubbed shot with a late power play and the goalie pulled to end the game. The Sharks simply played their game and lost. Past playoff demons and earlier first and second round triumphs are in the past for the San Jose Sharks. Now each game exists as its own distinct entity. The Sharks need to make adjustments to address the gaps allowing Chicago forwards to build up a head of steam in the neutral zone, they need to challenge an extremely agressive Blackhawks penalty kill, and they need to solve rookie goaltender Antti Niemi.

NBC’s coverage of SJ-CHI game 1 focused heavily on Chicago, and the 44-save performance of Finnish netminder Antti Niemi gave them plenty to talk about. At 6-foot-2, 210-pounds, Niemi is a very large goaltender with what look like ironing boards for leg pads. In the warmups, it was noticeable how lightning quick he can get his pads flat on the ice for a butterfly save. But there are holes, and he is not as invincible as many breathless pundits and commentators make him out to be.

The Sharks faced a similar sized, and more technical butterfly goaltender in Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller last year. Niemi is quicker down to the ice and covers a formidable amount of the net low, but his recovery and movement side-to-side across the net are still suspect from a Sharks perspective. San Jose is the third consecutive team to face Niemi in the playoffs stressing the need to shoot high, but feints, fake shots, redirections and 1-timers can also catch him glued into one position.

One of the strengths of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is their spacing and anticipation. When one player cheats to one side, the other will slide over and cover a little more of that side of the ice. A strong defense and 4-defensively responsible forward lines make getting second and third scoring opportunities difficult, but that is where the series is going to hinge for San Jose. That is when they are going to catch the large Finnish netminder planted into one side of the ice, and they will score goals as a result.

The Sharks were able to punch through for the opening goal 11:19 into the first period on the power play. After a nice keep in at the point and a subsequent shot by Rob Blake, Marleau executed a slick backhanded flip pass to rookie defenseman Jason Demers just inside the blueline. Demers picked top corner far side with a 48-foot wrist shot for his first goal of the postseason. The Sharks came close to adding a second goal on another point shot by Demers in the second. A rebound deflected off of Niemi’s leg pads, and Keith took inside position on Manny Malhotra in front of the net. That left Ryane Clowe alone to fire a backhand into the empty goal. Niemi made a quick reaction save, diving back behind him and pulling the puck off the goal line.

It was the save, and the play of the game. Afterwards Niemi said of the save, “(It) was one of the best”.

A photo gallery from the game is available here.

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Time May 17, 2010 at 12:53 PM

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