Last year at this time, Antii Niemi was shutting down the San Jose Sharks while backboning the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup title. This year, the Sharks are the beneficiaries of Niemi’s strong play.
The 27-year-old Niemi, who went 16-6 with two shutouts while posting a 2.63 goals against average and a .910 save percentage during Chicago’s Cup run a year ago, has been brilliant in the series with Detroit, allowing one goal in each of the first two games.
“We like him a lot better on our side,” Dany Heatley told the AP. “He’s a steady guy. He makes the saves he should make; he’s in position. And he makes a lot of saves he shouldn’t make. He changes games for us sometimes.”
Sunday’s Game 2 against the Red Wings was one of those games, as Niemi was brilliant as the Sharks fought off a late push by the Red Wings, holding on for a 2-1 win and a two-games-to-none lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
Niemi struggled in the opening round against Los Angeles, but has rebounded against Detroit, one of the better offensive teams in the league. Despite constant traffic in front of him, Niemi seems unfazed and at his best.
Niemi made 33 saves on Sunday on the heels of a 24-save performance in Game 1. His best saves came in the opening 10 minutes as the Sharks were whistled for three penalties – two on Valterri Filppula and another on Pavel Datsyuk (and some help from a post as well).
“That doesn’t surprise me or anyone in our organization,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said in the post-game press conference. “We needed him in six of the first 10 minutes when we were shorthanded. He made some very good saves. The momentum swung there.”
Niemi’s counterpart, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, was almost as good. Howard made 35 saves on Sunday after stopping 44 in Game 1. He has a .852 save percentage in the series.
However, unless Detroit finds a way to solve Niemi, Howard is going to have to be even better.
Game 3 is set for Wednesday at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.
Powerless power play improving?
Though Boston went 0-for-5 on the power play in game 1 of its series with Philadelphia, extending its futility to all 26 chances in the playoffs, Bruins’ coach Claude Julien feels the unit has shown some improvement from its struggles in the opening round against Montreal.
“I thought there were a few things better, and hopefully it continues to get that way,” Julien said on Sunday.
Julien pointed to the puck movement and better control of the offensive zone as steps in the right direction for his struggling power play.
“When you look back at the game, you see where there are some openings,” he said. “And right now it’s unfortunate that on our power play we are not finding those. There is a lot of tension there, and when there is a lot of tension, you’re not seeing what is going on – seams and choices of plays.”
Fortunately for the Bruins, they found the seams and made the right choices while playing five-on-five, with David Krejci and Brad Marchand each scoring two goals in a 7-3 win on Saturday
Vancouver offense sputtering
Everyone knows the playoffs are a different season in terms of the way teams play defense, but no one saw this coming.
The Vancouver Canucks, who led the NHL in scoring during the regular season, are mired in a slump that has seen the Canucks score just four goals in its last three games. Included in that total is the one goal the Canucks scored in a 2-1 double-overtime loss to Nashville Saturday night, which knotted the Western Conference semifinal series at one game apiece.
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault was not happy with what he’s seen fro his team through the first two games of this series, pointing out the Canucks went offsides a number of times Saturday and managed just 15 shots in regulation in Saturday’s loss.
“I think our whole group needs to be better,” he said at a press conference. “Our execution has been off. In the third (period), where we’ve been the best in the NHL this year as far as scoring goals, we didn’t get a scoring chance.”
Henrik Sedin has just one goal in the playoffs, while Ryan Kesler (41 goals during the regular season) has yet to score in the postseason. Even Dabiel Sedin is struggling with just one goal in his last five games.
Tampa surprises; up 2-0
Tampa Bay hoped to leave the nation’s capitol with a split of the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Instead, Vincent Lacavlier’s OT goal has the Lightning up two games headed back home for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday. Lecavalier had two goals in the game, including the game-winner at 6:19 of overtime, while fellow veterans Martin St. Louis (goal) and Dwayne Roloson (35 saves) played key roles in the 3-2 win.
“It’s nice to get the two wins,” Lecavalier said. “We know how it went against Pittsburgh. It was the other way around, but we know it’s not over until it’s over. It’s obviously far from being over against a team like Washington. You can’t let your guard down. We have to go home and play some good hockey.”
Tampa has now won five straight playoff games, winning the last three against Pittsburgh after trailing the series 3-1 and winning the first two in Washington.
For the Capitals, they have been in this spot before, having rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Rangers in last year’s playoffs. Washington played well in each of the first two games, and dominated for stretches of Sunday’s game, but have so far been unable to solve the 41-year-old Roloson.
“I thought we had the momentum quite frankly for about 45 minutes of that game, but I felt very comfortable going into overtime rolling four lines and six defensemen if there wasn’t any penalties but it didn’t work out that way,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I can sit here and evaluate and say there were bad bounces in both games and that, but they came in here and did the job. They got the lead.”
Material from wire reports, press releases, team wesbites, and other sources were used in compiling this column.
(Steve Kendall is a freelance writer with 20 years experience covering hockey at all levels. In addition to thehockeywriters.com, he has written for The Boston Herald, The New England Hockey Journal, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette.)