SAN JOSE, Calif. -- They took the punch and not only survived but won the round.
The Chicago Blackhawks' 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals has to feel good, despite some ugly numbers. No power-play attempts and 45 shots against isn’t their normal formula for winning, but it was on Sunday, thanks to Antti Niemi.
“For sure, it was one of [my] best,” Niemi said after the 44-save performance.
His teammates agreed.
“He shut the door,” Brent Seabrook said. “He made some big stops at key times in the game.”
None was bigger than his left pad and glove save on Ryane Clowe in a 1-1 game late in the second 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.
It was a game-saver, and it was just one of 12 shots in a row for the Sharks in those closing minutes of the middle 20.
“We keep talking about him like he’s surprising people,” Patrick Sharp said. “If you haven’t figured out he’s a great goaltender by now, you’re not watching the games.”
Niemi’s performance overshadowed a great hockey game that could have gone either way. Fresh legs, from days off for both teams, kept a high pace going throughout.
“I thought Game 6 in Vancouver was fast,” Sharp said. “This was a step higher.”
The Hawks may not have caught a break with the refs for most of the game, however, when Kris Versteeg went to the penalty box in the final minute for tripping, instead of the true culprit, Dave Bolland. The Sharks were left to contend with one of the Hawks better penalty killers.
“That's the breaks that happen within a game,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “What we couldn't do was lose our marbles on the bench and start yelling and screaming at the referee. We had to have some poise and set up a 6-on-4 situation.”
As for Vertseeg, he was OK with going to the box, but it was the longest minute of the season for him.
“Just go to the box and pray that they don’t score because holy crap my heart was pounding through my chest,” Versteeg said. “But Nemo [Niemi] came up with a couple big saves and that’s what we needed.”
Coach Joel Quenneville wouldn’t comment on whether he thought the Hawks should have earned at least a power play or two and Sharp would only take the high road.
“I don’t think they were missed calls,” Sharp said. “The refs do a good job out there. No finger pointing at the refs. That’s for sure.”
Sharp scored to tie the game with a beautiful rush up ice started by Troy Brouwer.
“It was good to see Duncan [Keith] join in,” Sharp said. “He made a perfect pass.”
The drop pass to Sharp put it right where he wanted, and the Hawks finally figured out Sharks goaltender Evegeni Nabakov halfway through the contest.
“We played our big players against the other team's top lines,” McLellan said. “They've been very successful so I feel very comfortable with them on the ice in that situation.”
It proved to be the wrong call as Toews and Patrick Kane were able to set up Byfuglien with the game winner.
“We happened to get out there and, you know … got into the open area. [Kane] seemed to find it, got a good shot in,” Byfuglien said.
And with that the Hawks had their first lead of the game. It was enough for Nemo.