SAN JOSE, Calif. – Antti Niemi might finally be putting to rest all those questions about whether he is the Chicago Blackhawks’ weak link.
Niemi made 44 saves, Dustin Byfuglien scored the tiebreaking goal with 6:45 remaining in regulation to help Chicago get off to a fast start for a change this post-season by beating the San Jose Sharks 2-1 Sunday in the opener of the Western Conference final.
“He’s been good for us all year,” forward Kris Versteeg said. “Everyone seemed to be doubting him except us. We’re confident in him. We have to give him a lot more help than we did tonight.”
Niemi stopped almost everything that came his way in his first career game against the Sharks, helping Chicago kill four of five power plays including a 6-on-4 advantage in the closing minute. That snapped a run of four straight series-opening losses for Chicago.
Patrick Sharp also scored for the Blackhawks, who will try to take a 2-0 series lead on Tuesday night in San Jose. Chicago improved to 6-1 on the road this post-season.
“It’s something we really wanted to establish this series,” defenceman Brent Seabrook said. “We wanted to come out hard and get the first win of the series and try to play from ahead for a change.”
Rookie Jason Demers scored the lone goal for San Jose, which fell to 0-4 at home all-time in two trips to the conference final.
The Sharks managed a first-period power-play goal against Niemi and nothing else.
“There was some times we thought it was going in, but he did a good job,” Sharks forward Joe Pavelski said. “He’s going to stop it for the most part. We just have to the shots coming.”
The matchup between the top two seeds in the Western Conference featured fast skating and numerous scoring chances but few goals as Niemi and Evgeni Nabokov were up to the task for most of the game.
With the score tied at one in the third period, the Blackhawks found a way to break through. Captain Jonathan Toews won an offensive zone faceoff from Joe Thornton and Patrick Kane got the puck off the boards to Byfuglien. The talk going into the series was about how the Sharks would contend with the 257-pound Byfuglien in front of the net. But he showed he can also be dangerous from further out.
Byfuglien beat Nabokov with wrist shot from the slot for his fifth goal of the post-season, giving Chicago its first lead of the night.
“I feel like I’m at the top of my game right now,” Byfuglien said. “I think there’s improvements to be made. Just got to keep working and just getting in front, you know, getting dirty.”
Thornton’s line with Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley was on the ice for both Chicago goals. Thornton plus-minus rating this post-season fell to minus-8, but coach Todd McLellan had no regrets using his star centre for a key defensive zone faceoff against the opposition’s top line.
“Joe has been put in that situation all year,” McLellan said. “We played our big players against the other team’s top lines. They’ve been very successful. So I feel very comfortable with them on the ice in that situation.”
Niemi made the lead hold up by stopping a few late scrambles in front of his net. San Jose ended the game on a power play after Versteeg was called for tripping Devin Setoguchi with 54.2 seconds to play.
With Nabokov pulled, the Sharks had a 6-on-4 advantage but were unable to convert on their fifth power play chance. Chicago didn’t get a single chance with the man advantage.
Chicago got the tying goal midway through the second period when Sharp beat Nabokov with a tricky shot through a screen to cap a 3-on-2 break.
But Niemi was up to the challenge in his first career appearance against the Sharks, making a spectacular sprawling save to rob Ryane Clowe at the side of the net on a power play late in the period.
“I just saw him standing pretty much at the back post with an empty net and I just wanted to get my hand in the way,” Niemi said.
The Sharks were greeted by a raucous towel-waving crowd that had been waiting six years for San Jose to be back in the conference final.
San Jose converted on its second man advantage when Marleau set up Demers with a nice feed. Demers’ shot from the top of the circle deflected off Chicago defenceman Duncan Keith and beat Niemi high to the stick side for his first career playoff goal.
Chicago’s best chance came late in the period when Toews’ show from the slot hit the post.
NOTES: Chicago D Brian Campbell was booed each time he touched the puck, a regular occurrence since he left San Jose to sign as a free agent with the Blackhawks before last season. … The Sharks dressed seven defencemen with Niclas Wallin getting the call for the third time this post-season after being slowed by a lower-body injury.