Sun May 23 07:47pm EDT
For the third time in four games, Byfuglien scored the game-winner while Dany Heatley(notes) watched, this time from the penalty box. And just like that, the Chicago Blackhawks are off to their first Stanley Cup final in 18 years.
The San Jose Sharks played a fantastic series for a team that got swept. With the pedal to the floor from the drop of the puck (for the second straight night), nothing they could muster seemed good enough. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville has convinced a team of offensive stars to play responsible, defensive hockey (a deadly combo), and in turn, Antti Niemi(notes) was rarely challenged (16 fairly routine stops).
For the Sharks, a few questions need to be answered.
When you have three offensive studs (really four with Joe Pavelski(notes)), how is that only one guy, Patrick Marleau(notes), hits any form of a hot streak over the course of three playoff series? Heatley was a trainwreck, minus the excitement those incite. His stat line Sunday: zero points, minus-one, one shot and four PIMS (including the two on Kane that lead to the game-winner) - is a huge disappointment for Sharks fans who were banking on him being the guy to get them over the hump.
Though a few of his 23 saves were nice, he seemed to rely an awful lot on his Martin Brodeur(notes) (more Kirk McLean, really) hybrid style that saw him rarely down and square. Just think of the Blackhawks' first goal: he literally made a stand-up kick save on the initial shot from Brent Seabrook(notes), instead of getting low and staying strong with his pads flat on the ice. And the two-pad jammer attempt on Dave Bolland(notes)? Maybe just keep it simple there, bud.
Despite the quality performance most of the remaining Sharks put together, they lost to a Hawks team that didn't even bring its A-game.
Early in the contest, captain Jonathan Toews(notes) seemed to be fighting the puck (one assist, minus-one and a minor penalty), but pulled himself together nicely in the second half to help push the Hawks on through. It helped that his bemulleted linemate Patrick Kane(notes) was as impossible to herd as ever. I couldn't defend him with a lasso and a taser.
If Niemi continues to play solid, the Hawks are a near lock to win the Cup, simply because they can bring it any way you want to play it. When they went down 2-0 in the Sunday's deciding game, they let their grind line (Ben Eager(notes), specifically) take some "really, that wasn't charging?" runs at guys to get the fans back in the game. And just as their deflated crowd began waking up, goal No. 1 came, and the Sharks started folding the tents.
On the Hawks' blueline, Duncan Keith(notes) apparently lost four chompers thanks to a puck in the mouth courtesy Marleau, yet was back on the ice a few shifts later. Just because hockey players do this fairly often, we cannot become numb to how impressive that is. I'm telling you, it's a horrible, horrible feeling, and Keith got out there and took hits, blocked shots, and acted thoroughly unfazed. (Check out this article by James Mirtle for a refresher on how miserable getting de-jibbed can be.)
Any way you slice it, the Hawks are on to the Finals, and the Sharks had one of their best seasons in franchise history. Everybody wins. Except for the people who wanted San Jose to win.
So there you have it, folks. Your Western Conference champion is the Chicago Blackhawks, and they've got plenty of time to rest up before playing for the Stanley Cup.
Anyone putting their money on the East winner in the finals?