Sunday, May 23, 2010

Blackhawks advance to Cup Finals, await Flyers?

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg scored late in the third period as the Chicago Blackhawks reached the championship round for the first time since 1992 after rallying from a two-goal deficit to post a 4-2 decision over the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

Brent Seabrook and Dave Bolland also tallied for the Blackhawks, who completed the four-game sweep in dramatic fashion and await their opponent in the Stanley Cup Finals. Philadelphia can lock up a berth in the title round with a win on Monday, as it holds a 3-1 series lead over Montreal.

Antti Niemi shook off some early rust and stopped 16-of-18 shots for Chicago, which holds the NHL's longest current Cup drought, having come up short every season since a 1961 win over Detroit.

Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau lit the lamp for the Sharks, who suffered another in a long line of disappointing playoff setbacks.

San Jose, which has reached the 100-point plateau in each of the last four seasons, overhauled its roster in the wake of a shocking first-round loss to Anaheim a year ago. Despite once again being a favorite to contend for the Cup and reaching its first conference finals since 2004, the Sharks failed to win even one game in the series.

Evgeni Nabokov allowed three goals on 26 shots in defeat.

After failing on two prior power-play chances in the first half of the third period, Chicago took its first lead of the game with 5:55 remaining in regulation while on the advantage.

Jonathan Toews controlled the puck along the right wing, then dished in behind the Sharks net for Patrick Kane. His centering feed from the left boards along the goal line was one-timed home by Byfuglien from the top of the crease for a 3-2 contest.

San Jose buzzed around Niemi and several Blackhawk chances fell by the wayside in the ensuing minutes.
The visitors pulled Nabokov for an extra attacker with 1:20 remaining, but Versteeg backhanded an insurance tally into the empty net from center ice with 42 seconds to play.

San Jose opened the scoring at the 11:08 mark of the first period, when Joe Thornton's try from the outer edge of the left circle was blocked, but Couture followed up and beat Niemi before he could react.

The Sharks led 2-0 on a Blackhawks power play at 7:35 of the second period, as Marleau one-timed a feed from Marc-Edouard Vlasic at the right circle. The play was made possible when an errant clear hit Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith in the face, causing the blueliner to fall behind as San Jose broke out on an odd-man rush.

Chicago halved its deficit at 13:15 on an odd series of events. Several 'Hawks crowded the crease and a loose puck that slid under Nabokov appeared to have been swept out by a San Jose stick before crossing the goal line.

The ruling on the ice was no goal, but a lengthy review overturned the decision, revealing that the puck had fully crossed the goal line for a brief second. Seabrook was credited with the tally although Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle appeared to knock the puck into his own net.

Bolland then tied the game with 1:22 left in the second, when he snuck around the Sharks' net, turned along the goal line and slipped a shot over a diving Nabokov.

NOTES: Byfuglien recorded three of the four game-winning goals in the series, including Friday's overtime winner. He leads the Blackhawks with eight goals in these playoffs...Chicago has appeared in four other Stanley Cup Finals between 1961-92 (1962, 1965, 1971, 1973)...The Blackhawks hadn't swept a postseason series since taking the 1996 Western quarterfinals over Calgary in four games...The Sharks had not been swept since a 1995 Western semifinal against Detroit...Toews upped his NHL-leading postseason point total to 26 (7G, 19 A)...Sharks center Joe Thornton, who finished the game minus-two with one shot on goal, ended the playoffs with three goals and 12 points and a minus-11 rating...San Jose winger Joe Pavelski collected one assist and led the Sharks with 17 points (9G, 8A) in 15 games.

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