On Sunday, game one of the Western Conference Finals featured two of the NHL’s most prolific offenses, though the real matchup was between netminders, Antti Niemi (Chicago) and Evgeni Nabokov. A sign of things to come in such a competitive series.
Chicago took a 1-0 series lead at the HP Pavilion on behalf of Niemi, who had 44 saves and one goal against for the second seeded Blackhawks, despite the Sharks’ five power plays. Jason Demers had the only goal for San Jose, his first of the playoffs, while right winger Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Sharp scored for Chicago.
At the start of the 2010 playoffs, the Sharks’ 30-year-old center, Joe Thornton, was the victim of intense ridicule for his slow start and “lack of leadership” against their first round matchup against the Colorado Avalanche, in which he had no goals and a plus/minus rating of -4.
Of late however, Thornton has once again reemerged into the media spotlight with a strong outing in the 4-1 series win against the Detroit Red Wings, where he had eight points in five games.
Part of one of the best one-two punches in the NHL, line two center Joe Pavelski has also been strong for the Sharks, becoming their premier goal scorer in the playoffs. He leads the team in points (15) and goals (9).
Though Pavelski and Thornton have been the Sharks’ main source of scoring so far in the playoffs, they will not be the reason that San Jose advances to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Before the start of game one, Niemi and Nabokov had nearly identical save percentages in the playoffs, with .909 and .907 respectively, while each face their most challenging opposing offenses thus far.
After the first period, it was apparent that the victory of game one would come down to the goaltending, with Niemi having the clear upper hand with multiple jaw-dropping saves throughout the game.
Nabokov faces the wrath of a fast, freewheeling offense in Chicago, led by captain Jonathan Toewes, who leads the league with 21 points in the playoffs. In order to stop the strong combination of Patrick Kane, Sharp, and Toewes, Nabokov will have no room for error for the rest of the series.
In the regular season, Nabokov once again solidified himself as a top netminder in the league, going 44-16 in 71 starts—one win away from the league lead, held by Martin Brodeur.
With Thornton’s unpredictable participation offensively, and the majority of the goal scoring responsibilities falling on the shoulders of Pavelski, Nabokov will be forced to command a team starving for strong leadership and stability.