San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov only allowed two goals, but still took the loss in Game 1 against Chicago. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The story of Game 1 of the NHL’s Western Conference Final between Chicago and San Jose really depends on who’s doing the telling.
For Sharks fans, Game 1 had overtones familiar to those of San Jose’s first round series against Colorado: a lot of Sharks shots, a lot of unsuccessful Sharks shots, and a soft goal allowed by Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
For Blackhawks fans, Game 1 was also about goaltending, but in a positive way: much-maligned Hawks netminder Antti Niemi was the hero Sunday afternoon at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, turning away 44 of 45 pucks directed at him in a 2-1 win that gave Chicago home ice advantage.
And so, much as they did after losing 2-1 to Colorado in the first game of their first round series, the Sharks find themselves looking for answers on offense.
They need solutions for a power play converted on only one of the five man advantages referees Paul Devorski and Brad Watson gave San Jose; they need production from their ‘Big Three’ of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley (all of whom were held scoreless and combined for a minus-six on the afternoon); and they need better play from their secondary scorers who stepped up through the first two rounds (Ryan Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi combined for 17 shots and no goals on Sunday).
Chicago, meanwhile, didn’t have a single man advantage in Game 1, were out-shot 31-22 through the first two periods and were outplayed during a number of Sharks surges, yet came away with the victory in large part thanks to Niemi.
The 26-year-old playoff rookie and native Finn was outstanding. The only way the Sharks were able to beat him was on the opening goal of the series – a power play shot from Jason Demers that ricocheted off Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith and past Niemi at 11:19 of the first period.
The Sharks continued to press Niemi, but to no avail – and although Nabokov could not be blamed for Dustin Byfuglien’s game-winning goal at the 13:15 mark of the third, he most definitely could be faulted for Chicago’s first marker.
On that goal, Nabokov was beaten cleanly through the legs by a shot Patrick Sharp took just inside San Jose’s blueline at 7:43 of the second period. The softie halted any momentum the Sharks had amassed and allowed the Hawks to gain confidence and outshoot San Jose 18-14 in the third.
Even a late-game San Jose power play (with 54.3 seconds remaining in regulation time) wasn’t able to faze Niemi, who now has a .918 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against average in the 2010 playoffs.
Not all blame for the loss can be laid at the feet of Nabokov, who made several timely stops during Game 1.
But if he continues to be the second-best goalie on the ice, the Sharks will continue to be in trouble.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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