Niemi sharp as Blackhawks win opener
Dustin Byfuglien's goal with less than seven minutes remaining was the difference in a tightly played contest, giving the Chicago Blackhawks a 2-1 road victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.
Chicago goalie Antti Niemi, showing no rust after a five-day layoff, made 44 saves to secure the win.
"He had some key saves," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He looked big and took away big parts of the net."
It was the sixth straight road win for the Blackhawks and the first time that they won the first game of the series in 2009-10 playoffs.
"I like our preparation all week, the focus and concentration, that was our motivation, to get the first game. We weren't happy the way we began the last two series," Quenneville said.
San Jose had a distinct advantage in scoring chances, with many coming on their five power plays. The Sharks also kept their cool, going the entire game without taking a single penalty.
Evgeni Nabokov made 38 saves in the losing cause for the Sharks.
Both teams were coming off long breaks after wrapping up their respective second-round series early.
The Blackhawks hadn't played since May 11, when they defeated Vancouver in Game 6, and the Sharks were idle since May 8, after taking care of the Detroit Red Wings in five games.
Neither team appeared too rusty, as both sides generated quality scoring chances in the first period.
The goalies were sharp as well.
Niemi's best game of playoffs
Niemi was the busier of the netminders, as the Sharks peppered him with shots from various angles, including several chances on their five straight power plays. The Finnish goalie flashed his glove hand on numerous occasions to keep the score knotted at one.
One of his best saves of the night came off the stick of Sharks forward Torrey Mitchell, who found himself alone in front of the net, midway through the third. But Niemi moved quickly across the crease, squaring his body to take the puck in the chest.
Seconds later, Byfuglien scored the winner on a quick shot after Jonathan Toews won a faceoff in the Sharks' zone.
Toews picked up an assist on the goal, for his playoff-leading 20th point.
"I feel like I'm at the top of my game right now," Byfuglien said. "[But] I think there's [still] improvements to be made. I just have to keep working and just keep getting in front, you know, getting dirty."
Thornton's line with Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley was on the ice for both Chicago goals. Thornton plus-minus rating this post-season fell to minus-8, but coach Todd McLellan had no regrets using his star centre for a key defensive zone faceoff against the opposition's top line.
"Joe has been put in that situation all year," McLellan said. "We played our big players against the other team's top lines. They've been very successful. So I feel very comfortable with them on the ice in that situation."
Neimi, playing in his first NHL post-season, was considered one of the team's weaknesses at times this year. But he played his best game of the playoffs in Game 1, allowing Chicago to steal home ice advantage from San Jose.
"He's been good for us all year," forward Kris Vertseeg said. "Everyone seemed to be doubting him except us. We're confident in him. We have to give him a lot more help than we did tonight."
Weak wrist shot beats Nabokov
Nabokov was also solid, despite allowing a soft goal to Patrick Sharp at 7:44 of the second period. Sharp let a weak wrist shot go from the blue-line after stepping up to join the odd-man rush. The puck trickled between Nabokov's pads to tie the game at one.
The Sharks' power play moved the puck well and got plenty of pucks to the net, but managed only one goal.
San Jose forward Jason Demers scored his first career playoff goal at 11:44 of the opening frame, beating Niemi in the top corner on the power play.
The Sharks pulled their goalie on their fifth power play in the final minute, making it a 6-on-4, but were unable to get anything past Niemi.
"There was some times we thought it was going in, but he did a good job," Sharks forward Joe Pavelski said. "He's going to stop it for the most part. We just have to the shots coming."
That final Sharks power play came when Kris Versteeg was called for tripping Devin Setoguchi — but replays showed it was Dave Bolland who committed the offence. That meant the Blackhawks caught a bit of a break, as Bolland, one of their top penalty killers, was able to be on the ice for the final flurry.
"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 6-4 situation.
"Regardless of who was out there … we had to beat a good team. We weren't going to stand up and yell and scream."
Game 2 is Tuesday night in San Jose.
With files from The Associated Press