It was as if the Chicago Blackhawks needed to be scared straight before they could prove themselves the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite. During a 4-2 victory Sunday afternoon, they were; and, after a series sweep, they are.
San Jose played desperate hockey to begin the game and managed the first goal for the second consecutive contest. But by the final one-third of the first stanza, the quick-strike Hawks were buzzing and the Sharks were doing all they could to hold the lead heading into intermission. What began with a 6-1 San Jose advantage in shots became an 8-7 Chicago advantage by period’s end. The Sharks held, but things looked tentative.
Patrick Marleau then put the Western Conference champs up by two with a shorthanded marker early in the second – his fifth goal in the past three games – and this writer jumped the Shark by beginning his ‘Sharks show some life’ game blog. But the resilient Hawks got back in the contest with a video-reviewed, crease-crashing goal by Brent Seabrook that reignited the Madhouse on Madison.
And before the second stanza was out, Dave Bolland tied the game with less than 1:30 to play, continuing his coming-out party in these playoffs and sending Chicago on its way. San Jose’s shoulders slumped noticeably and, for all intents and purposes, the series was over.
But to their credit, the Sharks began the third period strongly, with only a lucky deflection off Chicago keeper Antti Niemi’s crossbar keeping San Jose from the lead during the first minute of play. Some furious end-to-end action showed the best of both teams (and why the West is best), but two Chicago power plays within three minutes killed San Jose’s momentum and Dustin Byfuglien tallied his fourth goal and third game-winner of the series to put San Jose on ice.
(Byfuglien and Bolland – the Killer Bs – were otherworldly against the Sharks. Look for them to be game-breakers again in the Cup final.)
The difference in the series was twofold: First, at every turn Chicago showed push back, while San Jose did not. Admittedly, the Sharks could have entered Sunday’s contest up 2-1 in the series. But disheartened by a late, game-tying goal off a disputed icing call in Game 3, or when down two in Game 4, the Hawks fought back to claim victory.
To put it mildly, Chicago’s young core was dangerous almost every time it hit the ice during the series; San Jose’s older nucleus played offense in fits and spurts and was nowhere near the defensive presence of its opposites.
Secondly, the Sharks were stymied by the disappearing act of every offensive force they have save Marleau. With Thornton being checked relentlessly all series, Dany Heatley fighting what will surely be revealed as an injury and Joe Pavelski managing just two assists through his final six post-season games, San Jose was sunk.
For the Hawks, they await the winner of the Philadelphia-Montreal series – likely the Flyers – with a chance to end the longest current Cup drought in the NHL right now. For the Sharks, this may mark the end for a core that has disappointed in the playoffs year after year; Marleau and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov await unrestricted free agency, although Marleau’s game and series showed him to be the class of the 2010 UFA class.
Of course, with salary cap problems looming, this may be the final chance for this group of Hawks to win the Cup. Expect them to use that as motivation to do just that as May turns into June.
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