Goalies key as Sharks, Kings start Cup climb


Goalies key as Sharks, Kings start Cup climb


SAN JOSE -- (AP) Antti Niemi was a major reason the Sharks failed to make it past the Western Conference final a year ago with his spectacular play in goal for Chicago.Now that Niemi has traded in his Indian-head logo for a teal sweater, the Sharks are hoping he can play just as well in his second postseason as he did in his first when he helped end the Blackhawks' nearly five-decade title drought.
"I still have nightmares of the save he made on me in Game 1," Sharks forward Ryane Clowe said. "It's great to have him on our side. When you go against a Stanley Cup goalie and he beats you and then you get him over here the next year, that's always nice. We love Nemo. We love the way he competes. He's a workhorse and we expect big things from him."
RATTO: Sharks vs. Kings -- 5 unconventional factorsNiemi delivered in the regular season, posting the most wins (32), the third-best goals against average (2.11) and the fifth-best save percentage (.927) in the league after Dec. 1. Niemi started 36 of San Jose's final 37 games, helping the Sharks move from 12th in the Western Conference to second in that span.He leads the Sharks into their first-round series against the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Kings beginning Thursday night in San Jose. The Kings have their own goalie capable of dominating a series in Jonathan Quick."Being out on the West Coast, he doesn't get as much credit as he should, but we've got a great guy in our net, and we have full confidence in him, even if not as many people know about him," Kings defenseman Jack Johnson said.Few knew about Niemi before last season's playoffs, when he started all 22 games for Chicago, winning 16 with a 2.63 goals against average as the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup title since 1961.That performance gives him confidence and a comfort level heading into this year's playoffs."I don't think it will be easy, but it is a little different having some experience," he said. "Last year, I played 30-something games and it was my first playoffs ever. It was really mind-boggling. Now I know I can play playoffs so it's a different case."He said that first game of the Western Conference final in San Jose, when he made the diving glove stop to rob Clowe late in the second period, was one of the most important he played during that run.That started Chicago's sweep of San Jose in the latest postseason disappointment for the Sharks.
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"It's nice to have him in the same color jersey," forward Patrick Marleau said. "We know firsthand going up against him how tough he is. We're looking forward to that in the playoffs. It's great looking back there knowing he's there to make the big save or the easy save."Niemi was just the latest in a long line of hot goaltenders who have given the Sharks postseason anguish, from Anaheim's Jonas Hiller in 2009 to Dallas' Marty Turco the previous year to Dominik Hasek and Dwayne Roloson in the more distant past.The Kings have a goalie more than capable of doing the same in Quick, who had 35 wins and a 2.24 goals against average this season. He will need to be at the top of his game to shut down an offense with seven 20-goal scorers led by Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Joe Pavelski.Quick has won six of his 10 career starts against the Sharks, holding them to two or fewer goals half the time. He shut out San Jose at HP Pavilion in December and was outstanding in a pair of shootout wins later this season.San Jose managed to knock him out with four goals in a little over 25 minutes just over a week ago, but the Sharks know how formidable he can be."He's usually making the first stop," Sharks forward Logan Couture said. "Obviously we got to him that last game in the regular season, but he's always played well against us. He's good moving laterally. His pads sit up so you can't beat him along the ice. You have to get him up. He's quick, one of the better goalies in the league statistically and how he played against us."The Kings will likely need a big series from Quick considering they scored fewer goals than any other playoff team this year and will be without their biggest offensive threat in forward Anze Kopitar, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.If the Kings are going to have success against Niemi, they will have to do better on the power play than they did during the regular season. Los Angeles slipped from sixth in 2009-10 to 21st this season on the power play despite having most of the same players.That power-play success a year ago almost carried the Kings into the second round, as they converted 38.5 percent of their chances and got 10 of their 18 goals with the man advantage in a six-game loss to Vancouver in the first round."We're trying to work on moving more," Johnson said. "Our power play really took a nose dive in the second half, and a lot of it had to do with standing around on the ice. You can be moving the puck back and forth really well, but if it's not with a purpose, it's pointless, and that's kind of what we fell into lately."

Span clinches win for Giants and Gearrin, who had walk-off dreams of his own

Span clinches win for Giants and Gearrin, who had walk-off dreams of his own

SAN FRANCISCO — With the winning run on second and a bat in his hands, Cory Gearrin allowed himself to dream. He was a second baseman at Mercer University years ago and he entered the night with a 1.000 batting average in the big leagues. Why couldn’t this be his night on the mound and at the plate?

Gearrin stopped on the way to the plate and told Buster Posey that he was going to walk it off. He dug in against right-hander Chad Qualls and waited for the first sinker. He swung over the top of it, but he felt it was a quality hack. And then he missed the next sinker, and then the next. 

“I felt good going into that at-bat,” Gearrin said. “It was fun getting that opportunity. I’ve never faced a sinker like that. I felt like I missed it … by a lot.”

Gearrin can take solace in two facts. First, using his own sinker, he pitched three shutout innings, more than earning his keep, and he was a well-deserved winning pitcher in a 4-3 win over the Rockies that became official one minute after midnight.

Second, perhaps he gave the next hitter, Denard Span, a better view of an opposing pitcher’s repertoire. 

“Yeah ... he gave me a lot of information during that at-bat,” Span said as he laughed. 

Okay, so maybe Gearrin’s contributions were limited to the mound, but oh what a job he did against one of the best lineups in the National League. Span didn’t glean anything from Gearrin’s brief battle, but he didn’t need to. He spat on a changeup and then ripped a sinker into right, allowing Gorkys Hernandez to race home for a 14th-inning victory. 

Span, who is open about his distrust of birds, had spent nearly two hours standing under a circling flock of seagulls. Between pitches, he often dropped his hands onto his knees, looking more eager than anyone for the night to end. 

“Those birds were dropping stuff all around me,” he said. “I was like, you know what man, I don’t got time for this.”

The single gave the Giants back-to-back wins for the first time since May 27-28. It validated so much good work, from the five relievers who got the ball to Gearrin, to the Brandons who turned a snazzy double play in the 11th, to Buster Posey, who twice threw out runners at second in extra innings. Gearrin shouted out the defense in his post game media session. 

“It’s not news to us that we’ve got gold glovers all over the field,” he said. 

The Giants trailed by a pair after Matt Cain hung a curveball to Mark Reynolds, but they chipped away. The Rockies were the jumpier team in extra innings, but every rally was cut down by stellar defense and quality pitches. Gearrin threw 34 of them. 

The veteran right-hander had never before recorded more than six outs in a big league game. He got nine outs Tuesday, giving Bochy one extension after another as he battled to make it through a game shorthanded. With Conor Gillaspie headed to the DL, the Giants had just three position players on the bench. That meant Ty Blach was used as a pinch-runner. Jeff Samardzija pinch-hit in the 11th. Bochy thought of using Matt Moore in the 14th when the pitcher’s spot came up. Hunter Strickland was warming up to pitch the 15th, but …

“I could have hit Moore — I probably should have,” Bochy said, smiling. “But Cory is a pretty good athlete and had a pretty good average going into that at-bat. The numbers swayed me.”

Gearrin got his first career at-bat last season and singled. He has not even taken batting practice since that day, but he was fired up when given the opportunity. He was still so fired up after the Giants chased Span into the outfield that he didn’t mind the fact that his shiny 1.000 batting average has been cut in half. 

“I got to use that line for a year,” he said. “But I’ll gladly sacrifice the 1.000 average for a walk-off win.”

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants' 14-inning win over Rockies

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants' 14-inning win over Rockies


SAN FRANCISCO — This, at long last, is a winning streak. A modest one, but still. 

Denard Span hit a walk-off single to right in the bottom of the 14th inning, giving the Giants a 4-3 win that became official one minute after midnight. The Giants have back-to-back wins for the first time since May 27-28. 

The Giants led early, fell behind on a three-run dinger, and then chipped away until the game went to extras. Buster Posey twice gunned runners down at second to help keep the score tied and the bullpen held tough, with Cory Gearrin throwing three scoreless innings. 

Gearrin had a chance to win it for himself in the 14th, but he struck out with Gorkys Hernandez on second. Span promptly singled. If you’re just waking up for work, here are five things to know from a night when the seagulls outnumbered the humans … 

--- Matt Cain needs an assist on the first run of the night. With Gorkys Hernandez on first, he got a sacrifice bunt down on a two-strike curveball that was headed for the dirt. Hernandez went to second and promptly scored on Denard Span’s single to right. The curveball wasn’t so kind in the sixth. With a runner on, the Giants intentionally walked lifelong nemesis Nolan Arenado to get to Mark Reynolds. Cain hung a curve and Reynolds crushed it to left for a three-run homer. 

--- The Giants got a run back in the sixth when Brandon Crawford’s deep fly allowed Buster Posey to trot in from third. Crawford leads the majors with nine sacrifice flies. He also turned a ridiculous double play that can’t adequately be described, except to say that he should expand his trophy case. 

--- Kelby Tomlinson came off the bench to tie it in the bottom of the eighth. His single to right brought Brandon Belt in from third. Tomlinson is 9 for 27 as a pinch-hitter this season. That’ll keep you on the chartered jets. 

--- Sam Dyson, with a fastball that reached 97 and an infield defense that was just as firm, pitched 1 2/3 shutout innings in extras. What a find. 

--- With the go-ahead run on first and no outs in the 13th, Nolan Arenado put down a sacrifice bunt. That's one of the five best moments of the Giants' season.