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A game of missed opportunities
Sharks drop Game 1 on Niemi's strong performance
5/16/10 - By Mike Lee -

The NHL’s Western Conference Finals kicked off on Sunday afternoon in San Jose in an action packed barn-burner. The only thing missing was a home win, as the Chicago Blackhawks took Game 1 with a 2-1 decision on a 3rd period Dustin Byfuglien goal. Chicago won their 6th straight road-game during the playoffs, staking themselves to a 1-0 series lead. San Jose had their chances, but couldn’t solve Blackhawks netminder Antti Niemi, who made 44 saves for his 9th win of the playoffs.

Part of the Sharks game plan as they kicked off the series is to generate special team chances by taking fewer penalties than the Blackhawks. They would certainly accomplish that, sending the Blackhawks to the box 5 times, without committing a single infraction, but they would only net a single goal.

Combine that with 5-on-5 play that didn’t generate any scoring and a career performance by Niemi, and the Sharks were limited in the most important stat of the game. The absence of scoring, allowed Chicago to wait out the Sharks, and capitalize on their chances.

“They (top line) had opportunities," said Sharks head coach Todd McLellan. "They produced a power play goal for us which is important versus a very good penalty killing unit… The fact that they were on the ice for two goals against and got nothing five on five… that happens.”

The Sharks would grab the early lead, but Chicago got timely scoring and let their defensive corps do the rest.

An early holding penalty to John Madden went by the wayside, but not without some juicy scoring chances, including a shot that Niemi was forced to block from the right side. The rebound kicked out into the slot where it was immediately put back in the Chicago netminder' direction.

San Jose would remedy that when Byfuglien put the Sharks back on the power play at 10:36 for interference as the Blackhawks tried entering the Sharks zone.

Rookie defenseman Jason Demers made Chicago pay with his first career playoff goal at 11:19. Demers whipped a shot from the top of the right circle, after Patrick Marleau slid a pass to him from along the blueline. Demer’s shot beat Niemi by catching the upper left corner of the net. The HP Pavilion crowd erupted, but it would be the only celebrating they would do.

Jonathan Toews had a golden opportunity snuffed out by Evgeni Nabokov with 1:35 remaining in the period, one of 38 saves the Russian netminder would make on the day.

San Jose would outshoot Chicago 13-8 in the period and seemed poised to make things difficult for Niemi, but the failed to sustain that pressure in the middle period.

Niemi made a nice save on Devin Setoguchi who tipped a Logan Couture pass from the left corner right on net 4 minutes into that middle period. Setoguchi was left undefended in the slot, and was able to redirect the shot on goal from the point-blank range.

Marleau snapped a one-timer from 13 feet a minute later that Niemi was forced to snare shoulder high, after Joe Thornton sent a pretty feed into the slot from behind the Blackhawks net.

San Jose’s failure to extend their lead even though they were outplaying the Blackhawks would finally catch up to them. Patrick Sharp would tie the game on a shot from the high slot at 7:44. The Blackhawks forward used defenseman Douglas Murray as a screen, shooting the puck between Murray 's legs. Nabokov was didn’t see the shot until it was too late, closing the five-hole a split second after the puck split his pads.

“The second period wasn’t kind to us, especially the first 8, 10, 12 minutes, then we finally got it back," said McLellan. "We were a little hesitant… some passes went awry… we ended up spending a lot more time in their zone then we would like.”

Niemi would continue to come up big, by making a huge save on Ryane Clowe after Brent Seabrook took a holding penalty with 5 minutes remaining in the period. The Sharks would also just miss on a chance right before the end of the period, buzzing the Chicago goal and sending a shot that missed just wide of the left post.

“I thought he was big," Quenneville said of his netminder. "The first period they come in here and we know that was our toughest challenge. You heard the building, that added to their enthusiasm. Then the crowd gets into it, they were off and I think we were off as well. Then we had to kill three shorts in the first. And then they scored on the one. Only down one in the first period we probably felt fortunate. but I still thought we really got our feet going in that second period and it really represented how we have to play going forward The pace of the game was definitely rough throughout and, What a game."

Chicago turned up the heat early in the 3rd period and sustained pressure around the Sharks net. The first tem minutes of the period where controlled by the Blackhawks. San Jose appeared to weather the storm, and generated a pair of scoring chances, but Chicago would strike with 6:45 remaining in regulation. Byfuglien would take a pass from Patrick Kane in the high slot and throw a shot on net just as he cross into the right circle. The shot beat Nabokov to the low glove side, utilizing a screen by Sharks captain Rob Blake. After Kane slid his pass from the right wing boards, Blake tried to cutoff Byfuglien’s shot from the low slot, but he couldn’t get there in time. Not only did he fail to block the shot, but he and Dany Heatley prevented Nabokov from getting a good look at it.

Pavelski had a chance to tie the game with 4:30 left in regulation after Dan Boyle sent a pass to him in the crease, but he was cross checked by Seabrook, leveling him.

San Jose had one final chance to tie the game up late when Kris Versteeg was whistled for tripping with 56 seconds left in the contest. McLellan pulled Nabokov for the extra attacker, but Niemi was up to the task. San Jose didn’t get any traffic in front of the net, so he was able to see the everything, including Dan Boyle’s blast with 18 seconds left.

San Jose retained possession, but Joe Pavelski attempt to hold the puck in from the left point ended with it hoping past him and the Blackhawks ran the clock out.

“I thought they did a good job denying the top quality chances," Quenneville said. "Antti made some big saves to complement the PK tonight. The last kill was a dangerous one as well. We’ll look at it again and see how good we did.”

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Scoring
1 2 3 T
CHI 0 1 1 2
SJ 1 0 0 1
1st period - 1, SJ, Demers 1 (Marleau, Boyle), 11:19, (pp).
2nd period - 2, CHI, Sharp 6 (Keith, Brouwer), 7:44.
3rd period - 3, CHI, Byfuglien 5 (Kane, Toews), 13:15.
Penalties
1st period - Madden, CHI (holding), 2:50; Byfuglien, CHI (interference), 10:36; Sharp, CHI (high sticking), 15:47.
2nd period - Seabrook, CHI (holding), 14:01.
3rd period - Versteeg, CHI (tripping), 19:04.
Goaltending
Shots Saves
CHI - Niemi 45 44
SJ - Nabokov 40 38
Shots On Goal
1 2 3 T
CHI 8 14 18 40
SJ 13 18 14 45
Power Play Conversion
CHI 0 of 0
SJ 1 of 5
3 Stars of the Game
Antti Niemi
Evgeni Nabokov
Dustin Byfuglien
Attendence
17,562
Officials
Referees: Devorski, Watson. Linesmen: Arnell, Heyer.
Holiday Gifts at BustedTees

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