After being named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender last year, Antti Niemi has had an up-and-down season for the Sharks. Of course, it hasn't frequently hindered San Jose's performance since they control play so thoroughly most nights that outstanding goaltending is somewhat optional.
But when his team desperately needed him today, as they were territorially dominated by a Rangers club that's a whole lot better than the standings indicate, Niemi was brilliant, stopping all 41 shots he faced for his fourth shutout of the season and setting a franchise record for most saves in a shutout in the process. The Sharks needed every last one of them, too, as their only goal on Henrik Lundqvist came via a masterful individual effort by Logan Couture while shorthanded when he somehow managed to go backhand shelf while doing the splits.
The Rangers weren't just throwing pucks to the net from everywhere, either. Niemi stopped a ton of high-quality chances, including a point-blank attempt by Mats Zuccarello from the slot, a perfect cross-crease pass from Zuccarello to Derick Brassard for the one-timer, a John Moore rebound in tight directly after a perfectly-placed Benoit Pouliot deflection and a Carl Hagelin breakaway. Marc-Edouard Vlasic helped his goalie out as well, thwarting a chance for Ryan McDonagh where the Rangers defenseman had an empty net to shoot at.
There was one shot that actually beat Niemi, a Hagelin wraparound in the second period, but following a video review it was ruled the puck didn't cross the goal line, although it clearly did. Presumably what the referee announcing the war room's decision meant to say was that it didn't cross the line prior to the whistle (or intended whistle). Or that the NHL is simply incompetent and has no idea how to conduct these reviews. At least we've confirmed Tommy Wingels isn't the only player whose goals are overturned because of intentions to blow.
Ultimately this isn't a game the Sharks, outside Niemi, should be all that proud of. They were thoroughly outclassed by a team they could very well face in the Stanley Cup Final should they qualify for the first time in franchise history. Granted, the Sharks rebounded from an atrocious first period to apply some consistent pressure on the Rangers in the middle frame before once again sitting back and relying on Niemi in the third. But I suppose this is what you pay a goaltender for; to steal games when the rest of the team, for whatever variety of reasons, just looks out of sync, particularly on the breakout.
Niemi stole these two points, plain and simple, and they're a huge two points for the Sharks as they once again pull even with Anaheim for first place in the Pacific.
- At five-on-five, shots were 35-23 in favor of the Rangers, a lopsided total to be sure that indicates the degree to which the ice was tilted in this one. But when James Sheppard was not on the ice at five-on-five, shots were 19-19. This isn't to single out Sheppard as I think Tommy Wingels and especially Marty Havlat shoulder at least as much of the blame; since Raffi Torres was swapped with Havlat on that line, they've been buried in terms of possession on a regular basis. Hopefully the fact that they scored two goals against the Islanders hasn't convinced the coaching staff they're a viable third line; they were the biggest reason the Sharks were dominated territorially today.
- I'm still not sold on Sheppard as the long-term third-line center (it should be Joe Pavelski) and I still think there's a place for Havlat in a healthy Sharks lineup but Havlat on left wing with Sheppard is probably not ideal and these last three games should drive that point home. This road trip featured some McGinn/Handzus/Mitchell-caliber defensive ineptitude from the third line.
- Here's 6'4" Joe Thornton cross-checking a kneeling 5'7" Mats Zuccarello in the head (via Steph):
- Great game for the fourth line, who almost single-handedly pulled the Sharks out of their doldrums in the first period with a strong shift that produced a grade-A opportunity for Andrew Desjardins. Tyler Kennedy really changes the dynamic on that unit and allows them to spend a lot more time in the right end of the ice.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Antti Niemi
2nd Star: Henrik Lundqvist
3rd Star: Logan Couture