CHICAGO -- For a team that hasn't been to the Stanley Cup Final in 18 years, it sure seems like the Chicago Blackhawks have gotten back there in a hurry.
Three seasons after missing the playoffs, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the rest of the Blackhawks clinched a spot in the Final by overcoming a 2-0 deficit and rallying for a 4-2 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals to complete a sweep of the top-seeded San Jose Sharks.
Dustin Byfuglien scored his third game-winner of the series with 5:55 remaining in the third period to touch off a wild celebration by 22,224 fans at the United Center, many of whom weren't alive when the Blackhawks won their last Stanley Cup in 1961.
Toews was barely old enough to walk when the Blackhawks lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Final in 1992. But the Blackhawks' captain says his team's rise to the top of the League, especially after losing in the West Finals last season, doesn't really come as a shock to him.
"At this point it doesn't come as any surprise to myself or anybody else in our locker room," said Toews, who extended his franchise record points streak to 13 games with an assist on Byfuglien's goal. "We know what we can do as a team. Last year, we felt we were very close but just didn't have enough in us. We were young. Obviously that inexperience did catch up to us a little bit."
Not this year. Patrick Sharp, who was traded from Philadelphia to Chicago during the 2005-06 season, said it's as if the players on this team have been together forever.
"It feels likes we've been together a long time," Sharp said. "A handful of guys have been here since the dark days. A group of kids that were drafted together, played in Norfolk and Rockford together. It's fun to be a part of this team on and off the ice. Guys get along so well. I think that really carries over into our play."
Now comes what might be the biggest challenge for this team -- waiting for an opponent. The Philadelphia Flyers hold a 3-1 lead against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals and can put the series away with a win Monday night.
"Everyone is pretty excited," Sharp said, "but at the same time we're focused on the next series already. We know we got some more work to do."
It looked as though the Blackhawks were going to have to pack their bags for a flight to San Jose for Game 5 after the Sharks jumped to a 2-0 lead on goals by Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau, who scored his fifth of the series.
Marleau's shorthanded goal 7:35 into the second period that made it 2-0 will probably be remembered more for what happened to Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith.
Kane tried to one-time a pass into what was a mostly empty net with Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov caught out of position. But Marc-Edouard Vlasic was able to block the shot, which deflected onto the stick of Marleau and set the stage for a freak play that will leave many cringing in disgust.
Marleau tried to send the puck the length of the ice, but instead caught Keith directly in the mouth with the puck. The Norris Trophy candidate would lose seven teeth because of that clearing attempt and was unable to skate back into the play. Marleau went down the ice and scored while Keith went to the dressing room to receive medical attention.
"I just knew right away," Keith said. "I took one breath and it felt like my whole mouth was missing, so I knew there were some teeth gone. I'm missing seven teeth now, four on the bottom and three on the top. There are no stitches, though. They're just all gone. I don't know how, but I just mashed all my teeth out. They numbed it after it happened. They stuck a bunch of needles in there and froze it all up."
Considering how the Blackhawks reacted after that, maybe they'll want Keith to take a puck in the face during every game.
Brent Seabrook scored a 4-on-4 goal less than six minutes later to cut the lead to 2-1 while his defensive partner was getting some quick dental work. He drove down the right wing and snapped a quick shot on Nabokov. The puck settled in the crease for what seemed like an eternity.
Eventually, it was accidentally pulled into the net by Nabokov. Defenseman Douglas Murray swiped the puck out of the net almost immediately after it crossed the line, but video replay showed it was a good goal.
"We knew right away. Our report from our dressing room was it's a goal," said Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell. "We knew it. I think it was just, 'OK, let's stay calm in case anything happens.' But we were pretty positive it was going to count."
With 1:22 left in the second period, Dave Bolland scored his fifth goal of the playoffs to tie the game at 2-2. The checking center, who helped hold Sharks center Joe Thornton to one assist in four games, scored his second of the series after beating Couture to the puck behind the net. Bolland got off a quick shot from the front of the net that deflected off Sharks defenseman Kent Huskins and over Nabokov.
The Sharks nearly took the lead early in the third period, but a long shot by Devin Setoguchi deflected off Marleau and hit the crossbar. Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi, who only had to make 16 saves, covered the puck in the crease.
That's as close as the Sharks would come to a victory, as Byfuglien's goal and an empty-netter by Kris Versteeg clinched Chicago's eighth win in nine games and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
But Toews, who refused to touch the Clarence Campbell Bowl, offered a scary thought for whomever the Blackhawks face in the next round: there's room for improvement.
"We know we can still be better," he said. "We're going to keep pushing ourselves. This is a great opportunity, a great chance. Nothing's holding us back. No reason we can't go out there and get another four wins." Best shift: Dustin Byfuglien will get the accolades, but Patrick Kane was the catalyst on the game-winning goal. He controlled the puck in the Sharks’ zone during a power play for what seemed like an eternity before finding Byfuglien in the crease. His perfect pass made it easy for Byfuglien to whack it home and send the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Final.
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