When the news broke out this morning that Todd McLellan picked Antti Niemi to start in goal tonight against Chicago Blackhawks, many Sharks fans voiced their disappointment. On one hand the decision is logical - no one on the Sharks team wanted to beat the Blackhawks more than their former player Niemi, who was let go last summer due to salary cap constrains. On the other hand, the decision still seemed risky, as Niemi has been nothing but an example of inconsistency since moving to San Jose.
As it turned out, McLellan made the right bet, and Niemi not only beat his former team, but also played well enough to earn #1 star of the night award from local broadcasters. San Jose Sharks ended the 3-game losing skid in fashion, as they defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, a team that beat the Sharks in 7 out of the last 8 contests.
While San Jose players tried to downplay the significance of this game in interviews to the press, there was no doubt they have long been waiting for a rematch of last season's Western Conference final. The tone of the game was set early on. As local favorite Brian Campbell was accelerating into the zone, the moment he passed the blue line Murray slammed him into the boards, thus reminding the fans what they were missing during the four games Murray was out with injury. Moments later Patrick Marleau decided to switch things a bit and instead of his usual poke check, sent another Blackhawks player into the air with another big hit around the boards.
Douglas Murray was on the mission the rest of the night. He was hitting anything within his reach (ending the night with 7 hits), he was clearing the area in front of Niemi, and he was bombing the puck from the blue line like his last name was Ehrhoff (ending the night with 4 shots on the net, and at least as many shots that missed the net). At one point he even dribbled the puck past three Blackhawk players as if his last name was Boyle.
Besides naming Niemi as a starter, Todd McLellan had few more surprises up his sleeve as the game went on. First he inserted Joe Thornton on the 3rd line between Jamie McGinn and Torrey Mitchell early in the game. Couple of shifts later he put Thornton back on the top line, but this time rotating him with Patrick Marleau and leaving Devin Setoguchi next to Heatley and Joe. The rotation paid its dividends early, as Heatley broke the scoreless tie eight minutes into the game on a precise pass from Joe Thornton.
Not willing to back off in the 2nd period, Sharks continued the pressure in the Blackhawks offensive zone, and scored another goal. This time it was the 4th line with a goal, as Jamal Mayers scored his first goal of the season with a wrist shot from up close.
The Blackhawks responded right away, as Jack Dowell managed to redirect the puck with his skate from his teammate while crashing Niemi's net. The play went for a video review, but we're used to these being called against the Sharks in the last little while, and the goal stood.
The call did not affect the Sharks and shortly after, they earned a penalty as Dave Bolland was sent to the box for a cross check on Scott Nichol. The Sharks were scoreless on their last 15 power play opportunities, but the drought had to end at some point and Joe Pavelski made sure it was tonight. Somehow he was left all alone with the puck in between the circles in the Blackhawks zone, which is normally a recipe for a disaster. After pausing for a moment, Pavs sent the lethal wrist shot past Turco, thus increasing Sharks lead to two goals.
The game could have easily swinged the other way few minutes later. Two consecutive penalties by the Sharks gave the Blackhawks a 5-on-3 power play for 45 seconds. The Big Pavelski squared off against one of the best faceoff centers in the league Jonathan Toews and he won that key faceoffs, leading to the Sharks clearing the zone and killing half of that 5-on-3 disadvantage. San Jose ended up killing the rest of those two penalties, and going on the second intermission with 3:1 lead, which we became so familiar with last week.
Was this going to be another meltdown, or would the fortune finally reverse in San Jose favor?
No luck or officiating help was needed this time. The home team came out focused and composed to finish the job they started in the first two periods. Nothing changed this time, even after Blackhawks opened the period with a quick goal by Patrick Sharp, as he redirected the flying puck from a shot. Murray was still hitting and shooting. Niemi was still positioning himself well and eating all the rebounds. And the Sharks were still a faster and a more aggressive team, forcing the Blackhawks to take penalties. Another power play led to another goal by Patrick Marleau, as he picked up the puck in the neautral zone, blew past the defensemen who tried to stop him and sent it top shelf over slow Turco.
As Plank remarked on Twitter, this was the not only the good old times as Patty scored on Marty, but these are the best old times. Aren't we grateful our old pal Turco is still playing in the Western Conference?
Marleau would score again with 2 seconds left in the game on a empty netter, becoming the first Sharks to break the 10-goal barrier this season.
What proved to be the biggest difference in what we're seen tonight against the Blackhawks versus what we've seen against the Blue Jackets last week?
First, the players came out and played full 60 minutes of hockey all night. There was no coasting, no taking shifts off and no underestimating the opponent.
Second, the power play was effective. It was interesting to see McLellan not only mixing offensive lines on even strength. He also did it with PP units. Douglas Murray joined Dan Boyle on the top unit, as did Logan Couture, which forced Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau to drop to the second unit. And it worked. Murray on the blue line allowed Pavelski to move inside the zone more, and giving him a chance to use his best weapon - a wrist shot - to score what proved to be a game winning goal.
Third, certain players lead the team with their energy and confidence. Douglas Murray was unstoppable. McLellan sensed that, and let him play an unusual 23:24 of ice time. Big Swede was even second on the team in PP time - not sure that ever happened for him as a Shark. Not just that - he made key defensive plays too. None was bigger than his save on Bolland wrap around at the end of the game that caught Antti Niemi off guard. Murray threw his big body on the ice and saved the puck from going in. Niemi was another player whose confidence and solid play was felt by all on the ice. Rarely he was out of position, and hardly ever his rebounds were picked up by the Blackhawks. He played the same way tonight as he played in that Western Conference final.
While the Blackhawks are not the same team they were last season, they are still the team that beat the Sharks last spring. A win over the current Stanley Cup champion is always a big win. Niemi needed it. The rest of the team needed it. And we, the fans, sure needed it.
There is nothing like sitting down at the dinner table with your friends and family tomorrow and discussing a big win over a big rival. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!