Professional athletes are an elite group who perform, train and sacrifice on a level many of us will never realize. Despite personal achievements or ability however, in hockey you simply cannot win or lose the game by yourself. Just ask Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.
Unless of course you are the goalie.
Goalies, much like quarterbacks, are defined by a singular statistic; a singular measure of how great they are. Not GAA, not All-Star appearances, not shutouts—their definitions can only be forged in the fires of the NHL playoffs. A hot goalie that can carry his team when it counts, win when it counts and step up when it counts is the one true equalizer in the NHL playoffs. Chris Osgood anyone?
For Evgeni Nabokov, a free agent at the end of the year, this year was supposed to be his redemption, his moment, the crown he would carry with him into free agency.
Someone hold off on the coronation and horns.
Anyone that has followed the San Jose Sharks knows of the label applied to Nabokov. Overworked, inconsistent, playoff choker; any or all of these statements might be among the terms one would hear in regards to Nabokov.
And Nabokov did nothing to quiet those whispers Tuesday night.
Nabakov has repeatedly displayed the same maddening inconsistencies in the past 3-5 years. Solid play with the occasional lapse of concentration that simply takes the wind out of the team's sails.
Whether or not this criticism is deserved or fair is not important. The bottom line is when it REALLY counts, he cannot win. He cannot make the save, and he cannot outperform his opponent.
Many of his defenders will state facts, stats and spew analysis as if the bottom line doesn't matter. This behavior is normal and expected, if not a tad biased. I can assure you however, that the bottom line is the only thing that matters in this scenario.
For a span of six minutes, starting with the great save on Devin Setoguchi, Antti Niemi faced a barrage from the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks' gameplan did not change as the Sharks brought the puck down low and won more than their share of battles along the boards. The Sharks continued to pour on the pressure, just missing on several scoring chances, clearly taking the game to the Blackhawks.
Then Chicago carried the puck across the neutral zone, and on a shot from just inside San Jose's blue line, scored the first goal of the game for Chicago.
For those who didn't watch the game, you might have thought this was a "Steve Yzerman vs. the Blues, circa 1996" type of slapshot, a screamer of a rocket impossibly aimed to change a team's fortune.
You would be wrong.
Niemi makes a sterling save on Setoguchi early in the first, and proceeds to stop the next five straight chances. The stop on Clowe's wrister from just inside the circles was especially important at that particular juncture.
Shortly thereafter, Nabokov cannot stop a floater of a wrist shot, from a third-line winger, 45 feet out.
"The first goal took a lot out of us for some reason," McLellan told reporters. "You could feel it on the bench. It took a while to get the energy level back up."
This shot was as soft as it gets in the playoffs, folks. And quite frankly, it would be laughable even during warmups. And it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it took the steam right out of the Sharks game.
The refs conveniently swallowed their whistles during a scrum early in the second when Nabokov was pushed back into his net and the puck seemingly out of sight. The puck squirted loose and Kane came out of the cycle to float a shot that was deflected by Dustin Byfuglien for the 2nd goal.
Shortly afterward Murray went off for roughing, flashes of Vancouver's meltdown at home against the Blackhawks, as Chicago scored their third on the power play with who else but Dustin Byfuglien and Jonathan Toews parked in front of Nabokov.
The Sharks would answer from the top line, who played huge all night long. Patrick Marleau scored on a great one timer feed from Joe Thornton, a secondary assist going to Dan Boyle, who kept the play alive.
Going into the third period up by two goals, The Chicago Blackhawks were a perfect 29-0.
In case you were wondering or maybe didn't see the title, the Sharks did nothing to change that record.
Marleau added another goal in the game, but it did not make as big of a difference as those numbers would reflect. Thornton and Boyle set up Marleau on the first goal, and the second came from crashing the net.
On a positive note for San Jose fans, the Sharks played extremely well and with purpose. The series is not over. The Sharks must continue to do what they are doing and be ready for more hard work, but heading back to Chicago down 2-0 puts some serious bricks in the lunch pail.
Stars of the Game
Boyle - He is the only San Jose Shark consistently capable of leading a competent breakout against the Blackhawk forecheck , and is the best offensive defenseman on the ice by a long shot. The Sharks have problems breaking out when he is not on the ice. He continued to play hard, skate with purpose and lead the Sharks with his steady defensive play and offensive surge.
Bottom half of Blackhawk forwards - Ben Eager , Dave Bolland , Andrew Ladd were all Blackhawks who answered the call for their team, and in a tournament where unexpected heroes must emerge they didn't disappoint. They made key play after key play to nullify the Shark attack and provide the answer when the Sharks were surging.
Outside of Ladd, most of their efforts will not show on the scorecard. But these types of contributions are the most important ones come the postseason.
Dustin Byfuglien - Turns out Buffy the Luongo slayer also slays Sharks, as the big man just continued to haunt San Jose. Rob Blake and Murray both had difficulty containing the big man in the crease, with his presence on the third and second goal being the difference maker.