CHICAGO | Dustin Byfuglien has emerged as a force for the Chicago Blackhawks and now he is taking his game to the highest level. He and his teammates are headed to the Stanley Cup finals.
Byfuglien scored his third go-ahead goal of the Western Conference finals, converting on a third-period power play as Chicago rallied to beat the San Jose Sharks 4-2 on Sunday and complete a four-game sweep that sent the Blackhawks to the NHL finals for the first time since 1992.
“Seems like he likes the spotlight. He likes being the hero. He steps up in big time,” teammate Patrick Sharp said. “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.”
Chicago will play either Montreal or Philadelphia and be in search of its first NHL title since 1961, more than two decades before many of the current players were born.
“It’s an honor to be going to the Stanley Cup. We beat a very good team over there. It wasn’t easy,” Byfuglien said.
The 257-pound Byfuglien was parked in front of the net with 7 seconds left on the power play. He took a nice pass from Patrick Kane and knocked the puck past Evgeni Nabokov to give the Blackhawks a 3-2 lead at 14:05 of the final period.
“I got my stick open in front of the net, and Kaner game me a nice little feed,” Byfuglien said.
Moving Byfuglien to the top line with Kane and captain Jonathan Toews was one of coach Joel Quenneville’s best adjustments.
Kris Versteeg added an empty-net goal with 42 seconds left, and the red-clad fans at the United Center erupted, littering the ice with souvenir towels.
Byfuglien also had the game-winner Friday night in overtime as Chicago captured Game 3, 3-2. He also put the Blackhawks ahead to stay with a goal in their 2-1 victory in the opener and scored a goal in all four of the Blackhawks’ victories over the Sharks. He has eight goals in this postseason.
“When you’re playing with those two kids, the pucks are going to find you when you’re not expecting it,” Byfuglien said of being matched with Kane and Toews.
It was another disappointing ending for the Sharks, who won the conference in the regular season by a point over the Blackhawks. They outshot Chicago in three of the four games but couldn’t break through, scoring only seven goals in the series.
“There’s a level of frustration about the way we approached this whole series,” San Joe defenseman Rob Blake said. “We put ourselves in a position to be successful throughout the season and we didn’t accomplish what we needed to.”
Logan Couture scored in the first period and Patrick Marleau had a short-handed goal in the second as San Jose built 2-0 lead.
But Brent Seabrook was credited with a goal after a video replay reversed an initial on-ice ruling of no goal. Dave Bolland tied the game at 2-2 at 18:38 of the second.
The Sharks had a chance to regain the lead a minute into the final period, but a shot from the high slot by Devin Setoguchi deflected off the stick of teammate Joe Thornton and hit the crossbar.
“I’m not going to criticize the effort,” San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle said, pointing to the strong play of Chicago goalie Antti Niemi. “A combination of them playing well defensively, him playing well. The blame was on us, too. We didn’t find a way to get it through and I’m not really sure why that is.”
On his tying goal, Bolland scrapped for the puck behind the net and gained control. After hesitating, he fired a wraparound shot that appeared to deflect off the stick of San Jose’s Kent Huskins before it went past Nabokov.
It was the fifth goal of the playoffs and second in two games for Bolland, whose defense was a key throughout the series for Chicago.
Marleau scored the short-handed goal from the right circle at 7:35 of the second, shortly after the Sharks started a break when Marc-Edouard Vlasic blocked a shot by Kane. That put the Sharks in position to take control, but they couldn’t maintain it.
After Toews was called for cross-checking during a scramble at the net, leaving each team a man down, Seabrook took the puck toward the goal. As Marian Hossa battled to get control at the side, the puck slipped between Nabokov’s legs. Seabrook’s goal sliced San Jose’s lead to 2-1 and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan referred to the score as “a bit of a disputed goal.”
“There’s a rule that is in the league right now that if the referee has the intent to blow the whistle, it’s dead,” McLellan said. “The problem with the rule, like a lot of ‘em, is there’s a lot of gray left in there. Nobody knows what the referee’s thinking.”
Couture converted a high rebound past Niemi after a shot by Setoguchi from the left boards was deflected, putting the Sharks up 1-0 at 11:08 of the first.
Niemi made 16 saves for Chicago. Nabokov finished with 23.
“They seem very destined right now,” McLellan said of the Blackhawks. “They have a goaltender that’s on fire. They’re getting scoring not necessarily from their superstars, I mean that with all due respect to the Byfugliens, the Bollands, those type of players.
“They’re doing the things they need to do to win.”
NOTES: Couture’s opening goal was the first for the Sharks by someone other than Marleau since Jason Demers scored in Game 1. Marleau’s goal was his fifth of the series and eighth of the postseason. The Sharks had seven goals total in the series. … Chicago D Duncan Keith lost several teeth when he was hit in the face during the rush that led to Marleau’s goal. But he returned to the game minutes later. … Chicago’s Andrew Ladd played 2 minutes, 14 seconds in the first period and none thereafter because an apparent injury.