Henrik Sedin paid a backhanded “compliment” to Antti Niemi Sunday night – much to Niemi’s chagrin.
Sedin scored the tie breaking goal with 11:39 left in the game and Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo overcame a puckhandling gaffe by stopping 27 of 29 shots overall as the Vancouver Canucks beat the San Jose Sharks in game one of their Western Conference finals series, 3-2.
Referring to his team’s increasingly improved play as the game went along, specifically in the third period, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said, “We played our best hockey. We went north-south really quickly and I thought we made their defencemen turn back and go for pucks and were able to create some turnovers off of that. That led to some time in their end and good quality time.”
As typical for the opening game of a series, the first period saw each team test one another, with the skating generally favoring the Sharks. The prime scoring chances were not in high quantity, although Jannick Hansen’s drive at the 4:48 mark after slipping past the defense was just turned aside by Niemi. Late in the first period, Roberto Luongo committed an error that will be shown on Sportcenter 250 times over the next 48 hours: Luongo intercepted a dump-in behind the net, turned, and tried to force a pass on a direct line to Henrik Sedin instead of safely clearing it along the boards. That decision turned out to be disastrous, as Joe Thornton and his jumbo-sized arms neatly intercepted the puck and rifled it into the open cage, just inside the blocked shot effort from a sprawling Dan Hamhuis. With that, the Sharks took the early 1-0 lead.
Less than two minutes into the second period, the Canucks responded. Niemi, having a puck-moving adventure of his own, directed the puck from behind the net up the boards where it was corralled by Raffi Torres. Torres threw the puck back behind the net to a cycling Jannick Hansen, who then hit Maxim Lapierre on a bang-bang play right in front of the net. Lapierre delivered, wristing it into the net and tying the score. “That line played great all night, I thought,” Luongo said of the Lapierre-Hansen-Torres combination. “They had the puck mostly in the offensive zone generating a lot of chances.”
About seven minutes later, Patrick Marleau continued his spring thaw and scored his second goal in two games.
With the Sharks on the power play, Joe Thornton’s pass from behind the net bounced off the back of the cage and trickled out to the point, where Dan Boyle collected it and skated laterally. He improved his angle, snapped a wrister on net, and Marleau brought his stick up, managing to just deflect the puck past Luongo for the 2-1 Sharks lead.
To this point, San Jose was soundly outplaying Vancouver, but all that was about to change with three minutes left in the period. The Canucks seemed to send five forwards, a couple of coaches and three hot dog vendors at Niemi, all at the very same time. With those bodies crashing the net at once, the scene looked like one of those balls of herring that swim together in the middle of the ocean – and it looked that way for a long time. No pucks went in, but Niemi was peppered with attempts, including a point-blank backhander by Alex Edler. After the puck was cleared, the subsequent rush brought a perfect feed to Jannick Hansen, who saw his point blank chance smothered by Niemi. After two, the Sharks still led 2-1, but the shots now favored Vancouver 25-22 and the momentum was literally throbbing on their side, with the crowd of 18,860 in a full-throated roar.
“That was the momentum-changer, the frantic flurry if you will with about three minutes left in the second,” said San Jose coach Todd McLellan. “They were coming pretty hard at that point and we wanted to get into the locker room and recover a little bit.”
However, the break seemed to have the opposite effect. The Sharks looked to be the slower, more tired team as they went out for the third period, and the Canucks took full advantage, firing shot after shot on Niemi.
At the 7:02 and 8:21 marks, a one-two thunder/lightning strike hit San Jose squarely between the numbers. On the rush, the Sedins played catch, with Henrik eventually passing to Alexander Burrows along the far boards, streaking to the far right of Niemi. Burrows sent the puck laterally to the pinching Kevin Bieksa who collected it, and picked the corner with his shot, tying the score at 2-2. Just over a minute later, Henrik Sedin stickhandled the outstanding Christian Ehrhoff entry pass in front of the net on the power play, deked, and flipped it into the net as Niemi missed a do-or-die poke check, giving Vancouver its first lead of the game. With the shots in the third ultimately favoring Vancouver 13-7, they won going away, holding on to the lead and winning game one, 3-2.
Daniel Sedin, discussing the team’s prior round difficulties, said philosophically: “During the playoffs it’s going to be up and down. “You are going to have games where you are not as crisp as you want to be. But you try and stick with it andtoday I thought we played probably our best game of the playoffs. We had the puck more in their offensive zone and created a lot more from those kind of shifts. It was a good confidence boost for us.”
Todd McLellan used a colorful metaphor to describe his team’s third-period play: “We were like dogs chasing cars on the freeway. We just weren’t catching anybody.”
Despite the loss, the Sharks were in position to win the game during the third period and have responded to tough situations with focused efforts in the following game. McLellan said it succinctly: “We got to get better, energized and ready for Game two.”
Game two is Wednesday night, once again at the Rogers Arena. Although most men like the idea of twins, it’s safe to say that the Sharks sure don’t feel that way in this series.