- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
NOW THIS WOULD BE A SERIES. THE FINALS BEFORE THE FINALS. while in the East a pair of plucky long shots—the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds—had reached the conference finals, true thoroughbreds were running out West. Could the coltish Blackhawks really take off against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks? ¶ San Jose had a mad-good top line—Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley—so polished and productive that it was taken as a unit to the Olympics. The Sharks were skilled, savvy, seasoned and starved after years of playoff disappointment. Then here was Chicago, loaded to be sure, but a team that had scuffled in Round 1 against the Punch-and-Judy Predators then lost twice at home in Round 2. Could a young Blackhawks club with only three Stanley Cup winners on its roster meet a challenge like this? The series seemed certain to be the test of their hockey lives—long, demanding and draining.
And then, just like that, it was over. One week. Four games. Four Blackhawks wins. Hello, Stanley Cup finals.
It's not that Chicago never broke a sweat—have you seen Dustin Byfuglien after a game?—but neither did it break stride. The Hawks kicked aside the Sharks much in the manner of goalie Antti Niemi making one of his 44 saves in a brilliant Game 1 performance, a 2-1 victory. "I don't know why we have to keep answering questions about Antti," said Patrick Sharp. "There are no questions from our side."
Niemi was good enough in Game 2, winning 4-2, and terrific in Game 3, again making 44 stops, this time in a 3-2 overtime win.
Byfuglien, Chicago's biggest horse, never pulled up in this series, netting the winner in Game 1 and then, in that Game 3, one-timing in a pass from Dave Bolland to end the game with 12:24 gone in the extra session. It was Byfuglien's seventh playoff goal but his first at home, and when he potted his second two nights later to break a 2-2 tie late in the third period (the Hawks would add an empty-netter), the United Center crowd erupted in a Cup-crazed frenzy.
A sweep in the conference finals? Seriously...a sweep?
"It doesn't come as a surprise to myself or to anyone else in our room," said Jonathan Toews. "We know what we can do."
What they did, they did as a team. Toews had points in each game, running his playoff streak to 13 straight. Eight Blackhawks had goals in the series. The trio of Bolland, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg—"best checking line in the league," grumbled Sharks coach Todd McLellan—frustrated San Jose's top scorers. And in Game 4, after the Sharks went ahead, there was Duncan Keith getting seven teeth smashed in by a puck, coughing one of them up and then, after taking a round of numbing needle shots in the mouth, coming back to assist on the tying goal.
A short time later, when Toews was called upon to accept the Campbell trophy in the post-game ceremony, the captain wouldn't touch it. Toews and the Blackhawks wanted more.