CHICAGO -- When Joel Quenneville told Todd McLellan in the traditional coaches' postgame gladhand, "This wasn't a four-game series," he was being a bit more than kind, and a bit less than truthful. Indeed, as McLellan, the San Jose Sharks coach, said in relaying the tale of his moment with Quenneville, the Chicago Blackhawks' coach, "But you know what? It was."
It was, indeed. And it all looked like one huge eight-day game rather than four smaller ones. Dustin Byfuglien scored his third game-winning goal Sunday to highlight the 'Hawks' 4-2 win in the Western Conference final finale, and Antti Niemi was stalwart in goal again, and third-line center Dave Bolland provided a distinctly non-third-liner's game-tying goal, and the defense blocked another 18 San Jose shots to go with the 69 they'd already rejected in Games 1 through 3.
In short, San Jose could have extended this series only with a number of breaks that Chicago was too fast, too poised, too disciplined and too resistant to allow.
"Of the four games, three of them were, I felt, anybody's ballgame from start to finish," Quenneville said, being increasingly kind. "I thought Game 2, we had maybe our best game of the series, [but] the scores throughout were tight. The timeliness of our goals in the last couple of games [Byfuglien won Game 3 in overtime, Sunday's game with 5:55 to play], that makes it look a little bit like a larger margin than really what happened.
"I just think every game's different. But I like the way our guys stuck with the game plan and what we had to do."
And the 'Hawks did that because the Sharks never made them do anything else.
Recap: Blackhawks 4, Sharks 2
"They say when you get ahead in a series the other team has to do the adjusting," McLellan said afterward. "I thought we had some opportunities in Game 1 that if we might have converted some of them, maybe they would have had to adjust, but we never got them in that position."
In fact, the Sharks didn't even get them in that position even after taking a 2-0 lead Sunday, on goals by Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. The margin lasted only until Brent Seabrook's long-reviewed goal at 13:15 in the second, and disappeared when Bolland won a battle behind the San Jose net and beat Evgeni Nabokov five minutes after the Bolland goal.
That energized a sellout crowd at the United Center that had lost some of its verve, and the rest of the game was devoted to waiting on Byfuglien. The Sharks, worn down by Chicago's youth and talent, committed three third-period penalties, eating almost half the period that they needed to re-establish their early game control, and Byfuglien's winner was as predictable as it was delirium-creating.
"No," Patrick Sharp said to much laughter when asked when he could pinpoint when Byfuglien made himself the big-goal specialist he seems to be now. "Actually, I think it started in the Vancouver series. All those fans were getting on his case. He wasn't popular in that building.
"But it seems like he likes the spotlight. He likes being the hero. He steps up in big time. He told me before the third period he was going to be the guy to go get it. True to his word, he got it."
|Dustin Byfuglien (three go-ahead goals) is one reason why the Blackhawks are just too difficult to defeat ... even once. (AP)|
As have they all, in their ways. Even Marian Hossa, the designated sniper who has been goal-deprived through the playoffs, maintained a work rate that suggests that pouting is not allowed on a team so close to the Stanley Cup. And since Hossa has been on the losing side each of the last two times, he is not mailing any games in out of self pity.
And yes, they are this close to the Stanley Cup, because every known indicator says they are. With all respect to Philadelphia and even Montreal, the Blackhawks look so Red Wing-ish right now that it is hard to find a lot of ways to think they won't win it all.
Save, of course, Toews, saying the right thing in all situations.
"I don't think it's getting easier for us at all," he said. "Maybe it looks like that. Of course, your first impression for any outsider is, 'yeah, you win four games in a row, it must have been just a cruise.' But it absolutely wasn't. You know, there was no blow outs. No 4-1, 5-1 games. Every game was close.
"You know, I think the biggest difference between this series and the series against, say, Vancouver was that we didn't have any off nights. Maybe we had a couple iffy starts, some nights where we took more penalties than we wanted to, got ourselves in tight. But we stuck with it and we found ways. We worked hard."
Yeah, that talent/good goaltending/work-rate combination is tough to beat, which is why Chicago's conference final performance really was a four-game sweep.
Because the Blackhawks are the kind of team capable of not letting it be any other way.