Takeaways: Niemi fails Canadiens in heartbreaking loss to Sharks

Joe Thornton scored the eventual game winner, Thomas Hertl scored his 30th of the season and the San Jose Sharks beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-2.

It’s a dozen now, and this latest one was an absolute heartbreaker.

The Montreal Canadiens, winless in their last 11 games at SAP Center, came flying out of the gate in Thursday’s game against the NHL’s best home team. They sustained one of their best efforts of the season but ultimately fell to the San Jose Sharks by a score of 5-2.

Hope was not lost in the seventh minute of the first period, when San Jose’s Tomas Hertl intercepted Andrew Shaw’s pass in the neutral zone and eventually squeezed a weak wraparound attempt through Canadiens backup Antti Niemi for a goal, but it was fleeting when Marcus Sorensen made it 2-0 Sharks on their fifth shot of the period.

It was a soft wrist shot from a bad angle that beat Niemi on the short side at the halfway point of the first. A dagger straight to the heart of a Canadiens team that had tilted the ice dramatically towards San Jose’s end up until that point.

They did not relent, out-shooting the Sharks 16-5 through the first 20 minutes and reducing the lead to 2-1 before the frame ended, but considerable damage was done.

San Jose’s third goal, which bounced off Canadiens centre Phillip Danault’s stick in the eighth minute of the second period, put a bow on it.

Frustrating? You bet.

Let’s get to our takeaways on what made it so for Montreal on this night.

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Niemi failed them

Canadiens coach Claude Julien had a difficult call to make and elected to start Niemi and rest Carey Price, who had appeared in 15 consecutive games prior to this one for the first time in his career.

The Canadiens were scheduled to start their back-to-back in San Jose Thursday and end it in Anaheim on Friday, and Julien figured this was as good a time as any to get Niemi into the action.

“He’s done some extra work for a long time now and he’s ready for this, so we have to make sure that we give him that opportunity because we need our other goaltender to get a bit of a rest,” Julien explained. “With a back-to-back [against Anaheim on Friday night], this is probably a good time for it.”

The fact that Niemi was a former Shark who had experienced some success at SAP Center — he ranked second in Sharks history in wins — helped Julien confirm his decision.

The coach looked past Niemi’s last performance — a rough outing that saw him pulled after allowing three early goals in a loss to the Florida Panthers on Feb. 17 — and thought enough time had passed for him to file it away.

“When it comes to Antti, he forgets quickly. He gets back to work and practice and works hard,” Julien said. But practice doesn’t always make perfect, and Niemi’s performance on Thursday made that abundantly clear.

The 35-year-old Finn sunk the Canadiens in this one, allowing three goals on the first eight shots he faced. Meanwhile, they had 23 to their names when Joe Thornton banked the puck off Danault’s stick and into the net for San Jose’s third goal.

The Canadiens have 14 games remaining on their schedule and only one more back-to-back situation to deal with. Expect Price to start all of them, bringing his total to 67 appearances this season.

Artturi Lehkonen finally busted his slump

It’s one of a few positives the Canadiens can take out of the game; Lehkonen hadn’t scored in 30 before he dribbled a wrist shot from the boards through Martin Jones’s legs.

It was a huge goal for him and a huge one for the Canadiens, too. A first for the fourth line in 2019. And perhaps it’s one of a few to come for Lehkonen down the stretch.

That’s been the young Finn’s pattern since entering the NHL in the 2016-17 season, when he scored six of his 18 goals over Montreal’s final 10 games. A year ago, Lehkonen scored seven goals in his last 14.

The power play failed again

Not that the Canadiens looked bad on their only attempt of the evening, but misses on three scoring chances (while they trailed 2-1) made it one goal in their last 26 tries.

It was on the next shift after Montreal’s chance expired that San Jose scored to make it 3-1.

Deflating? You bet. And whether or not it ultimately costs the Canadiens a chance to participate in this year’s playoffs is a debate that continues to rage.

If Montreal doesn’t turn it around but manages to sneak in regardless, they’ll be the second team in the salary cap era to make the playoffs while owning the NHL’s worst power play. The only other team to manage the feat since 2005 was the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2008-09 season.

They ran a 12.7 per-cent power play but finished in sixth place in 5-on-5 goals (163).

Silver lining: The Canadiens, who are operating at 12.3 per-cent efficiency with the man-advantage, rank sixth in 5-on-5 scoring with 157 goals.

Still in a playoff spot

Thanks to a 3-0 Columbus loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier on Thursday, the Canadiens maintained their two-point lead over the Blue Jackets for the second wild-card position in the East.

They’ll have to hope the rest paid off for Price because he’ll have to be at his very best in Anaheim on Friday. The Canadiens skated their hearts out in the loss to San Jose and out-shot them 39-25. Add in travel — and the fact that the Ducks will be rested and waiting for them — and they’ll be in tough.

It doesn’t matter that Anaheim ranks 27th in the NHL and got pounded 4-1 in their last game against Montreal. There are no easy ones at this stage of the season.

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