Back to reality: Blackhawks strike first, but Sharks smell blood for Game 2


I’ll admit it — I probably responded to the Blackhawks’ Game 1 victory with a bit too much gusto. I re-watched the game today on NHL network with a big smile on my face. Maybe the joy of the ‘Hawks finally jumping ahead first in a series created the buzz, or it may have been the stellar “Get-Off-My-Ass-Already-Will-You!” performance of  Antti Niemi in net. Either way, I need to realize this series is far from over — and I know I’m not the only one.

As exhilarating as Game 1 turned out to be, Game 2 is poised to have a different feel with the same level of difficulty, if that makes sense. Mainly, the victory made a lot of us turn a blind eye to the heart-wrenching experience of Blackhawks fans for the majority of Game 1. San Jose doesn’t plan to make it any easier in Game 2.

Here’s a bit of what to look for tonight…

— Throughout the post-game interviews, the Sharks realized they needed to get the puck high on Niemi.  Jason Demers’ goal was a shot to the high far side of Niemi, and he planted it. Niemi may be prone to giving up goals on top-shelf shots, but getting those shots through may be easier said than done. The Sharks should be more concerned with getting traffic in front of the net on the initial shot.

Niemi played outstanding, but he also had some pretty nice views of the pucks flying at him. While the Sharks’ quick style of play doesn’t call for much cycling to create enough time to get a man in front of the net, it may be time for an extra pass or two to get big bodies like  Joe Thornton to screen Niemi.

— Since we’re on the topic of how to beat a goaltender, the performance of  Evgeni Nabokov got overlooked in the praise of Niemi. Nabokov stopped 38 shots, allowing a so-so goal to  Patrick Sharp and  Dustin Byfuglien’s winner on a defensive lapse. He snuffed out good scoring opportunities for the ‘Hawks, including a late 2-on-1 when he stoned  Marian Hossa. If Nabokov repeats is performance and Niemi’s even slightly dips, the ‘Hawks could be heading back to Chicago even.

— And since we’re talking about shots…. 45?! That’s the most of the ‘Hawks have allowed all season, and that trend cannot continue. If the Sharks get 45 shots per game this series, we’ll be watching them play in the Cup Final. San Jose is way too good a team to miss out on that many chances in one game is bound to bury more of those opportunities. It’s simply a fact.

— Penalties. San Jose is BY FAR the least penalized team remaining in the playoffs. The Sharks have been short-handed a mere 38 times compared to the Blackhawks’  58. Conversely, the Sharks have had 62 power-play opportunities in the post-season, which is second only to Philadelphia’s 66. By this point, the ‘Hawks really can’t expect to have their power-play unit on the ice too often in this series. This means Blackhawks have to take advantage of the few — if any — power-play chances they get, while also shying away from the stupid penalties which plagued them in Game 1.

Duncan Keith got most of the defensive credit for the ‘Hawks in Game 1, but let’s not forget about the above-average of play of  Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell and  Jordan Hendry. Seabrook made a big play pushing Thornton off the puck in front of an open net with Niemi down to save a goal. Hjalmarsson, Campbell and Hendry didn’t do anything especially flashy, but they all moved the puck when they had to and provided quality defense in the ‘Hawks zone. This needs to continue.

Dany Heatly seemed to be playing on his heels a bit. He received some great passes while in a perfect position to beat Niemi but couldn’t capitalize. The force on his shots wasn’t there, and he fell to his knees twice after attempting shots he normally rockets past a netminder. He also whiffed on a bouncing puck in front of the net in final minute, but that’s a tough puck to snag. Still, it’s a chance he missed out on.

— Minor predictions for tonight:  Jonathan Toews extends his playoff point streak to 11, assisting on a  Patrick Kane first-period goal.

** I’d like to thank  Dale Tallon for his service to the Blackhawks and wish him luck in his new venture as GM of the Florida Panthers. Toews, Kane, Sharp, Campbell and Q-Stache have sent their congratulations via text message to Tallon, and all are well aware their place in Blackhawks history is because of him. Good for you, Dale.

Puck drop is 9 p.m. CST from HP Pavilion in San Jose. How about the ‘Hawks take control of this series and come back to Chicago up 2-0, eh?


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