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NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks vs. Sharks, Game 4: Blackhawks sweep Sharks, headed to Stanley Cup finals

Image (1) Blackhawks-thumb-250x178-12112.jpg for post 1748

Chicago Blackhawks 4, San Jose Sharks 2

Blackhawks win series 4-0

This moment has been a very long time coming for the Chicago Blackhawks and their boisterous, enthusiastic fans. Before 2008, the Blackhawks had not won a playoff series since 1996 and had missed the playoffs altogether nine times between 1997 and 2008. Even in 1995, after a strike-shortened season, the deep run was a disappointment with the team just a few years removed from being swept in the Stanley Cup finals by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That 1992 team, the last time that the Chicago Blackhawks made it this far, featured Jeremy Roenick, Steve Larmer, Brent Sutter, Chris Chelios and Ed Belfour. This was the last truly great Blackhawks team, nearly two decades ago, and in between nothing but bad ownership, extreme disappointment, poor television coverage and dwindling crowds.

After Rocky Wirtz took ownership of the team and the likes of Dale Tallon and Rick Dudley worked their magic on the roster, it’s taken just two seasons for the Blackhawks to go from being out of the playoffs and into the Stanley Cup finals. This isn’t a fluke postseason run, either, where a low-seeded team gets hot at the right time. This was a calculated season where the Blackhawks dominated all year long with one goal and one goal only on their minds: the Stanley Cup.

That the Chicago Blackhawks clinched the Western Conference finals at home, after a convincing sweep of the San Jose Sharks, was fitting. These Hawks fans, who had been driven away by years of poor ownership and management, have returned in droves to threaten to give Chicago the best home-ice advantage in the NHL. It’s obvious how this team thrives off the energy of the fans, how gracious they were for their support as they skated around the ice with sticks held high as they celebrated a tremendous victory.

Don’t let the sweep of the Sharks fool anyone; this was a hard fought series that provided the big test that the Chicago Blackhawks needed to prove they’re finally worthy of a Stanley Cup. They completely overmatched the Nashville Predators and used pure emotion and grit to take care of a deep and talented Vancouver team. Against the Sharks, a team with which they almost little history with, they were challenged by a team that proved just as capable as themselves to put together an incredible amount of offensive pressure in a very short amount of time.

Several times throughout the series the Sharks were the better team, controlling play and taking leads in three of the four games. Each time the Blackhawks battled back, never panicking and showing an innate ability to ramp up their play to the next level. In Game 4, with the Sharks controlling play through the first period and most of the second and then taking a two-goal lead, the Hawks responded with an incredible counter attack that put the Sharks immediately back on their heals.

This wasn’t about the San Jose Sharks choking away a 2-0 lead, this as about the Blackhawks responding and taking the game to a lever that the Sharks just couldn’t compete at. Sometimes, a team is just better than their opponent and in this series that was the Blackhawks, both physically and mentally.

The Chicago Blackhawks may not have lost a game in this series to the Sharks, but the series was much closer than the 4-0 outcome shows. In tightly contested games and series between two extremely talented teams, whichever side is able to find any sort of edge over the other is the one that advances. The Blackhawks used inspired play by Antti Niemi and Jonathan Toews, as well as incredibly timely goal scoring by the surprising Dustin Byfuglien, to give themselves the edge to win three very close games and all of which were decided in the late stages of the third period or overtime.

It may have been a sweep, but it wasn’t easy.

The Sharks played at times like a team scared of losing. The Blackhawks played like a team that knew they were going to win.

For Antti Niemi, it’s validation that the Blackhawks made the right decision heading into the postseason as he proved in this series just how great he can really be. There were times of trepidation in Game 4 as Niemi looked to have reverted to the shaky goaltending of the regular season. The team in front of him picked it up instead, limiting the Sharks to just three shots on goal in the third period. Overall, it was a magical series for Niemi as he was by far the most important player on the ice for the Blackhawks against the Sharks.

For all the Patrick Kane’s, Patrick Sharp’s, Marian Hossa’s and Duncan Ketih’s this team may have, there has been none more surprising than that of Dustin Byfuglien. He has scored in five straight games for the Hawks, while netting the game-winning goal in three of the four games. Not coincidentally, those three game-winning goals came in the games that were decided by just one goal and were the tightest contested of all.

The Chicago Blackhawks of 2010 are a complete team, that just just one question mark heading into the postseason. With Antti Niemi stepping up, the Blackhawks are firing on all cylinders and are boasting an incredible amount of scoring depth. It should be no surprise they’ve made it this far, and are entering the Stanley Cup finals young, hungry and supremely confident.

You wonder if the Eastern Conference champion will even stand a chance.