For some reason, the talking heads outside Chicago continued to doubt the playoff readiness of Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi. Even Chicago newspaper analysts (cough, Chris Kuc, cough, Tribune) said the Sharks had an advantage head-to-head in between the pipes in this series.
I’ll wait for Kuc’s retraction on Monday.
Niemi kept 44 of 45 San Jose shots out of the net on Sunday, leading an outstanding performance from the entire Blackhawks roster as they took home ice advantage away from the Sharks with an emphatic 2-1 victory.
Despite allowing a first period goal to Jason Demers, on a shot that appeared to bounce off Duncan Keith’s hip, Niemi and the Blackhawks defense was awesome. Every shot that came on net was blocked, some by the sticks of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, a few by the bodies of Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson, and a lot by the glove of Niemi. In all, the Blackhawks were credited with 19 blocked shots in the game.
The Sharks were effective in the first, keeping a lot of the Blackhawks forward either behind the net or outside of the circles. The veteran defensemen pushed the action away from Evgeni Nabokov, who had a great game himself. It wasn’t until the beginning of the second period that the Blackhawks started to impose their will on the home team.
Ben Eager, who was credited with four hits, served notice early and often that the Sharks wouldn’t be able to stand by a wall in peace. Between Eager and Troy Brouwer, who led the Hawks with seven hits on Sunday, the Hawks were physically better than the Sharks in the final two periods. The battles for pucks started going to the Hawks, and the Sharks started to make sloppy passes and give up the puck early because of the physical pressure applied by the Hawks.
The physical pressure in the defensive zone was quickly turned into an up-tempo, attacking offense that saw the Hawks get shots on the net and establish their cycle in the corners and around the net. That attacking offense got a quality look for Patrick Sharp, who slipped a wrist shot past Nabokov at 7:44 in the second period. In tying the game, the Blackhawks took what was an electric crowd out of the game and had momentum on their side of the ice.
Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg played a great game on the third line for the Hawks, controlling the puck for extended periods of time in the final two periods and pressuring the Sharks into turnovers quickly after San Jose had taken possession. Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau were -2 each on Sunday.
When as the Blackhawks’ third and fourth lines continued to make life miserable for the top line of the Sharks, it was the top line that again cashed in late. After a Jonathan Toews faceoff win, Patrick Kane found Byfuglien wide open between the circles and he rifled a shot past Nabokov. Even though the Sharks had a number of strong chances late, Byfuglien’s fifth goal of the playoffs effectively ended the game for San Jose. The Blackhawks were too strong on the blue line and their forwards were too good at disrupting passing lanes and lifting sticks for the Sharks to convert.
Oh, and Niemi was a beast.
One trend that will be interesting to watch as the series progresses is the time spent in the penalty box. The Blackhawks were called for all five penalties in the first game, killing four of them. There aren’t “make-up calls” in sports, but stats like penalty minutes tend to even out; this should be an advantage for the Hawks as the zebras clearly missed a number of calls on Sunday.
There could be some controversy in San Jose over one call the refs caught, and yet somehow got wrong. Dave Bolland tripped Devin Setoguchi in wide open ice. However, somehow the penalty went against Kris Versteeg, and the Blackhawks were able to keep one of their key penalty killers on the ice for the final 56 seconds.
Game Two is on Versus on Tuesday night.