If there were questions about Antti Niemi’s ability to win a playoff game entering Sunday’s game in Detroit, they were answered in electrifying fashion by the Blackhawks young netminder.
Niemi was asked to stop 38 shots on Sunday, the most allowed yet this season by the Blackhawks, and he was successful on 35 of them before earning a second point in the shootout. He had to make a number of incredible saves to make up for terrible turnovers and against odd man rushes throughout the game, and was up to the task nearly every time. The biggest save of the game came after a rare Brent Seabrook turnover at the Hawks’ blue line just seconds into overtime. Olympian Henrik Zetterberg picked Seabrook’s pocket and streaked up the ice for a one-on-one with Niemi, and was able to get the puck back to his backhand side as he closed the gap with the Hawks’ goalie but a great pad save prevented the game from ending.
The action on the offensive side for the Blackhawks, as has become the trend, started early and often. Troy Brouwer scored his 14th goal of the season with a nice pick out of traffic just under eight minutes into the game. Seven minutes later, Patrick Kane scored his team-leading 20th goal of the season on a power play and the Hawks appeared to have secured the momentum.
But this is still Detroit, and the Red Wings wouldn’t go away quietly. At 19:11, Nicklas Lindstrom scored his third goal of the season to bring the game back to just a one-goal advantage for the Hawks. That was when the action on the ice turned from hockey to boxing.
Right off the faceoff after Lindstrom’s goal, Kris Versteeg and Patrick Eaves dropped the gloves and went at it in one of the better fights in a Blackhawks-Red Wings game in years. In case you missed it, here’s the video. Awesome fight, and it looked like Versteeg skated away with a win.
The Blackhawks had four power play opportunities in the first period to none for the Wings, so logic would indicate that there would be a few calls going Detroit’s way in the second period. Sure enough, the Hawks took three penalties in the first nine minutes, and the Red Wings cashed in on the third to tie the game at two goals apiece. Zetterberg beat Niemi for the tying tally, and that would be the final penalty called in the game. Seven penalties power plays were taken in the first 29 minutes of the game, and there weren’t any in the final 31 on Sunday.
At 11:10 in the second, Patrick Sharp redirected a missile from Duncan Keith to give the Hawks back the lead; it was Keith’s career high-trying 44th point of the season. In the second period, the Red Wings would outshoot the Hawks 12-5, but would escape with a 3-2 lead.
The third period began with a lot of hard hitting and back and forth skating by not many shots. However, in a bush league jinx move that could only be accomplished by a national network trying to put a hockey game on the air, a video montage talking about how well Niemi was playing played over the game-tying goal from Eaves. Thankfully, when NBC got done telling the viewing public about the great game Niemi was having, the first live voice heard was exclaiming that the score was suddenly tied… on a shot that wasn’t seen until a replay was run over more live action.
NBC’s coverage of the game was awful from start to finish. Not only did they butcher players names on both teams, but made a number of clerical errors when speaking about both Chicago and Detroit. At one point in the third period, they said Andrew Ladd was acquired last year (wrong), something that fills air time but does screams amateur to fans that pay attention.
Once NBC got back to showing live action, there wasn’t much to speak of from that point forward. Both teams played the final seven minutes conservatively, apparently saving the fireworks for an intense overtime period. Detroit had four great shots on net in the extra period, and Marian Hossa had a wide open look sail wide with just seconds left before two exhausted teams settled for the shootout.
Cam Barker was playing just his second game in as many days after missing time with an upper body injury, but he made a number of crucial mistakes with the puck that were pointed out by the NBC team almost as well as this fan’s eyes. One mistake could have cost the Hawks the game, as he tried to dump the puck back in behind the net to Brent Sopel without looking to see that Sopel was nowhere near where he was dumping it and there were two Red Wings waiting for an easy wrap-around chance. Thankfully for Barker, Seabook and Brian Campbell, who also had a bad turnover late, Niemi was up to the task on Sunday.
Brouwer led the Hawks with a goal and an assist, and Sharp was the Number One star of the game with one goal in regulation and the winner in the shootout. Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard was exceptional as well, stopping 26 of 29 shots against a hot Chicago offense. It was clear throughout the game Sunday that as Detroit continues to get All Star players back from the injured reserve, they will be able to match up well against anyone in the NHL. Thankfully, in the second game of a long road trip just 22 hours after a hard-fought win in Columbus, the Blackhawks were able to get a third consecutive win over the Red Wings, and second in a row in Detroit.
After a less-than-special performance from Cristobal Huet on Saturday, this exceptional performance from Niemi could begin to put pressure on the Hawks’ number one netminder again. In October, when Huet was struggling, Niemi was fantastic when given the opportunity and Huet responded by having a great November. With Huet struggling yet again, we could see more of Niemi between now and the Olympic break in February.