Antti Niemi’s recent run of inconsistent play wasn’t the only reason that Alex Stalock got the call in net for Sunday’s Western Conference heavyweight matchup between the Sharks and Blackhawks at United Center.
Niemi, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, is just 1-5-1 in seven starts with the Sharks in his former city, with a goals-against average around four and a save percentage well below .900. Combine that with a weak goal he allowed against Colorado the day before, something that’s becoming a disturbing pattern for the 30-year-old, and maybe the decision to turn to Stalock wasn’t all that difficult for Todd McLellan.
Aided by a solid defensive effort in front of him, Stalock made 33 saves, including some impressive stops that kept his team in the game early. He recorded his fifth and most important win of the season, 3-2 in a shootout.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Sharks get shootout win over Blackhawks]
“We hadn’t had success with Nemo in this building,” McLellan said. “Not that he can’t play here and won’t win eventually, but we just thought we’d put Alex in and give him every opportunity to play. I think that helped our defensive focus a little bit tonight, as well.”
“A lot of credit goes to our forwards and defense, keeping them to the outside,” Stalock told CSN Chicago. “When they get their motion going in the offensive zone it’s tough to stop, but if they’re on the outside it makes it that much easier.”
Since the start of the shortened 2013 season, the United Center had been a black hole for the Sharks. They were beaten decisively on Nov. 17, 5-1, perhaps a bit worn out at the end of a five-game road trip. Last season they dropped both games, 4-1 on Feb. 15 and 2-1 a week later.
Overall, the Sharks were 0-5-1 in their last six visits to Chicago, and they’ve still not won a regulation game there since Dec. 30, 2010, Niemi’s first game back.
Through two periods on Sunday, Stalock turned aside all 23 shots he saw, including a shoulder stop on Jonathan Toews’ chance early in the second. Other than that, the Blackhawks were mostly devoid of Grade-A chances or odd-man rushes.
“It was the best defensive effort we’ve had in this building in a while,” McLellan said.
The Blackhawks, who haven’t gotten shut out all season, finally got to Stalock in the third. Niklas Hjalmarsson scored after a breakdown in the defensive zone early in the frame, and Stalock probably should have stopped Michal Roszival’s point blast to the short side a couple minutes later.
Rather than hang their heads, though, the Sharks poured 15 shots on goal in the third and tied it on Joe Thornton’s beauty of a pass through the slot to Brent Burns with nine minutes left.
The coach credited the previous day’s keep-going attitude, in which the Sharks fell behind 4-0 but managed to make a game of it in Colorado with three unanswered markers, in aiding them against the Blackhawks.
“I thought that started yesterday in Colorado, that was a good trait that we used that night,” McLellan said. “Would have been easy to roll over and play dead there. We didn’t, and we carried it into tonight’s game.”
“Going down 4-0 and coming back, we probably brought the second part of last night’s game into tonight’s game,” he said.
The result is as satisfying a win as the Sharks have pocketed this season, even if it did take a tiebreaker.
Thornton said: “Any win in here is special. It’s a hard place to play. They play fast, they play hard. Any win in this building is huge for us.”