The young, wide-eyed Chicago Blackhawks were admittedly just happy to participate in the 2009 Western Conference Finals against the Detroit Red Wings and were bounced in five games. This year's more grizzled, playoff-savvy team didn't take anything for granted against the San Jose Sharks in Game 3 of the West Finals on Friday night.
After relinquishing a one-goal lead with 4:23 left in the third period, the Blackhawks showed toughness and resiliency before Dustin Byfuglien ignited the United Center by scoring with 7:36 left in overtime to give Chicago a 3-2 victory and 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"I think last year, it was almost like we were in the situation where we felt good to be there. It was exciting," said Patrick Kane, who has four assists in this series after having just 1 goal and 1 assist in last year's West Final. "It was almost like it wasn't supposed to happen for such a young team. Everyone was making us out to be such a young team.
"I think this year we gained some experience from what we had last year. We've been on a pretty good roll."
Seven wins in eight games is a roll that has Chicago one win from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The last time the Blackhawks won it all was 1961, and they will look to return to the Final for the first time since 1992 by sweeping the Sharks out the door in Game 4 on Sunday.
"You often hear people say the fourth win is the hardest to win in a playoff series, and we expect that's going to be the case," Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp said. "We don't want to go back to San Jose and play in that building. It's a tough one to play in. We're in a good position, but the series is far from over."
Just in case the Blackhawks have any thoughts of coasting and winning one of the next four games, coach Joel Quenneville can pop in a DVD of highlights of the Philadelphia Flyers' epic comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Boston Bruins in this year's Eastern Conference Semifinals.
And with the Sharks showing no signs of having their confidence shaken by three straight losses, there's no reason to think Sunday's Game 4 will be a walkover for the Blackhawks.
"We're down 3-0 and we're not going to quit, that's all I can say," Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said. "We need something good to happen to us, a good bounce to turn this thing around. Regardless had (the Flyers) done it or not, we'd still be believing in ourselves that we can come back. But seeing that it just happened, we know that it can happen."
After a scoreless first period, the Sharks used a 5-on-3 power play to open the scoring.
Patrick Marleau, by far San Jose's most effective player in this series, snapped a rebound over the catching glove of Antti Niemi to make it 1-0. It was the first of two goals in the game for Marleau, who has four of the Sharks' five goals in this series.
But Patrick Sharp answered with a power-play goal of his own 3:01 later. He slammed home a cross-crease pass from Jonathan Toews, who extended his point-scoring streak to a franchise record 12 games with the assist.
The game remained tied at 1-1 until late in the third period thanks mostly to the outstanding play of Niemi, who stopped 44 shots in a game for the second time this series. He has stopped 113 of 118 shots in three games.
"If no one knows who Antti Niemi is, they know him now," Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell said.
"We have confidence in Antti and we have all year," Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp said. "He's proven to a lot of people what kind of goalie he is, especially in this series. I know our captain's doing a heck of a job over there, but Antti's our MVP. He's been solid every game and hopefully it stays that way."
Dave Bolland was on the verge of being the goat after he took his third minor penalty of the game with 9:25 left in the third period. He was in the penalty box for Marleau's power-play goal, and it looked like he could be there for another goal at a crucial time in the game.
But the Blackhawks killed it off, and 30 seconds later, Bolland beat Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov on a breakaway to put his team ahead 2-1.
The lead would be short-lived, however, as Marleau's second goal of the game with 4:23 remaining evened the score and led to overtime.
The Sharks had a couple great chances to win in overtime, perhaps none better than Devin Setoguchi's chance from the right faceoff circle that was stopped by Niemi. Not long after, Byfuglien became the hero.
Defenseman Brian Campbell made a great play to hold the puck in the zone and send it behind the net for Bolland. The checking-line center capped off his brilliant offensive night by feeding a streaking Byfuglien in the slot for the winner that blew the roof off the United Center.
Now it's just a matter of closing out the series.
"As soon as we get away from playing our game, you know, we're a mediocre, average team," Toews said "We got to go out there, work hard, stick to our guns, stick to how we learned to play this year. That way we're going to be tough to beat."
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Shift of the game: Dustin Byfuglien wasn't much of a factor for the first 72 minutes on Friday night, but with a little help from Brian Campbell and Dave Bolland, he came through when it mattered most. Campbell made a nice keep at the blue line and sent the puck behind the net to Bolland, Chicago's best checking center. Bolland beat the defense to the puck and backhanded a blind pass into the slot, where Byfuglien was coming like a runaway train. "Big Buff" ripped a one-timer past a helpless Evgeni Nabokov to put the Blackhawks on the verge of their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 18 years.
1 - 0 SJS
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 CHI
2 - 2 Tie
1st OT Period
3 - 2 CHI
Interference on goalkeeper