Blackhawks up 3-0 in series over Sharks; Niemi posts another 44-save win

The questions loomed large again on Friday night: Could the Blackhawks play the same game at home that they have been playing so great on the road? Could they stretch the 2-0 lead into 3-0? How much of a factor would the UC home crowd be? Could the Sharks come up with a win to put themselves back into the running?

No matter what happens in this series, this much is true: the San Jose Sharks have not choked. Any writers suggesting otherwise clearly hasn't been watching this series. No - in fact, the San Jose Sharks have given the Hawks a serious battle throughout the series, and games 1 and 3 certainly could've gone either way - if it wasn't for a rookie goaltender from Finland who has shone in his first NHL playoffs.

It is not a stretch by any means to say that goaltender Antti Niemi has not only kept his team in the playoffs run, but has stood on his head to do so, and stole some games along the way - like last night. In his last four games, Niemi has been 1.5 GAA, .959 SV%, and 4-0. For the entire playoffs, he's gotten a highly respectable 2.35 GAA, .935 SV%, and has the best record, 11-4, including two shutouts in the first round. (Leighton and Boucher of the Flyers combine for 11-5.)

It is said that the mark of true champions are not only that they win when they deserve it, but they find ways to win even when they don't. A lot of Hawks fans - and even non-Hawks fans - have watched all three series and felt that the officiating has seemed against the Blackhawks. Despite this, even in games where the opposition took no penalties and Chicago took almost half a dozen, they've still won. If any team has earned their spot heading into the final games of these playoffs, it's the Men of Four Feathers.

Let's look at the games from a pure statistical standpoint:

- In three games, the Sharks have outshot the Hawks, 118-100.

- But the Sharks have only tallied 5 goals to the Hawks 9.

- The Sharks have only taken 9 penalties across three games - none in the first and only two last night. Of the seven they took in Tuesday's game, 2 were given to the same player at the same time in the brawl at game's end (Clowe, for roughing and misconduct). So for all intents and purposes, it might as well be just 8 for the Sharks versus the 14 that the Blackhawks racked up in three games.

- Last night, the first penalty against the Hawks was a bad call, although the remaining five were merited.

Supposedly, Niemi has a "pattern" of 3-1. But he won last night. He made a monster number of saves, but despite that, it also wasn't his best game: he gave up a few juicy rebounds that could've easily been goals if the Sharks had had somebody in the right place or the D-men simply just weren't quicker than the Sharks were, and a lot of San Jose's shots simply went too high or too wide.

The Blackhawks as a whole didn't have a great game, either - they weren't bad, but I'm having a hard time qualifying it as solidly "good", because they were outshot and at times, outplayed in general. Despite the win, there were plenty of moments where they started to look like they were edging towards "playing cute", where they were looking too hard for the "big"/flashy shots, where they sat back on their heels a bit. Especially when they pulled ahead by a goal and there was still around 6 minutes to play. If there's any team left in the playoffs that should know how fast a game can change, it should be the Hawks. (Hello, game 5, Nashville.)

If this has been Chicago's worst game since that game 5 loss in round 2, though, the fans will take it. The team will take it, but will want to improve on it in game 4. The Blackhawks players will be the first to tell you right now that they're trying to stick to playing one game at a time, to play more with a "road mentality", to keep it simple, and to focus on the here-and-now, not the what-might-be.

In addition to all that, however, they have to keep it clean. They've got to stay out of the sin bin, and they've got to help their goalie out more, so Niemi doesn't have to do another stand-on-his-head, 44-save performance.

Because, rest assured, the Sharks are going to be coming out desperate. After all, they have nothing to lose. They threw everything at Chicago the last three games. They shook up their lines in an effort to get past Chicago, and then they threw the kitchen sink at Niemi. They still lost and are down, 0-3.

The Sharks are stating that they're taking inspiration from the Flyers comeback against the Bruins.

The Blackhawks are taking a warning from the same: they don't want to be the Bruins. Not this close to the final round. Not this team.

Sunday is going to be intense.

And if pure faith and belief could lift a city, Chicago would be floating above Lake Michigan.