Blackhawks on the brink

Dustin Byfuglien's overtime goal moves the Chicago Blackhawks to within one victory of the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 18 years.

Byfuglien celebrates with the crowd after scoring during the Blackhawks' 3-2 win over the Sharks.
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CHICAGO // Dustin Byfuglien scored the biggest goal of his career on Friday night, sending fans at the United Center into pandemonium and moving the Blackhawks to within one victory of the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 18 years. Dave Bolland's nifty pass from behind the net found Byfuglien in stride as he skated hard into the slot. When the puck hit the net off Byfuglien's stick in overtime, Chicago had a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks and a 3-0 series lead in the NHL's Western Conference finals.

The Blackhawks can finish off the Sharks today at home and avoid a trip back to the West Coast. "With San Jose, they're such a good team, we definitely can't let off at all," Byfuglien said. "We got to keep going right to the final buzzer." The Sharks had the best regular-season record among Western Conference teams, and the Blackhawks expect them not to go down without a fight. "We want to feel like that's the most important game we play all year," Joel Quenneville, the coach, said. "That's the motivation and incentive. We know we have to be better than tonight."

The Blackhawks are on the cusp of their first appearance in the finals since 1992, thanks to two assists from Jonathan Toews, a breakaway goal by Bolland in the third period and 44 saves from Antti Niemi. "You're not going to get too high on yourself or too full of yourself like that. You got to do the right things and play the right way if you're going to have success," said Toews, the team's 22-year-old captain, who has a point in 12 straight playoff games.

"We've done that. There's nothing about us that says we're unbeatable. As soon as we get away from playing our game, you know, we're a mediocre, average team. "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." And right now they Blackhawks are just that, as the talented Sharks have discovered. "The reality is we're down 3-0. Happened a week ago with two good teams playing and Philadelphia found a way to come back, so there's something to draw on there," Todd McLellan, the San Jose coach, said.

"Plus the fact that we've been in this series I think for every minute. That's got to leave us feeling good. But we know we're in a hole and we've got to dig our way out." Byfuglien has carved out a reputation for parking his big body in front of the net, but this time he used his speed and good hands to score 12:24 into overtime. "It's great, something I'll definitely remember," Byfuglien said. "Bolland made a good play and just laid it out in the slot, and all I had to do was finish."

Patrick Marleau put the Sharks on top 1-0 in the second period on a power play, giving him four goals in two games. Just as a two-man advantage was about to expire, Marleau scored a rebound shot from the slot. The goal came about four minutes into the second period. Patrick Sharp answered soon after with man-advantage goal for the Blackhawks, and Bolland scored on a breakaway to put Chicago ahead 2-1 in the third period. Bolland, whose defence was a key in the first two games, picked up a loose puck at centre ice after Toews blocked a shot, skated ahead, and at the last second manoeuvred in to beat Nabokov with just under seven minutes remaining in regulation time.

But the lead didn't last long. About 2-and-a-half minutes later, Marleau scored on a rebound to tie it and force overtime. "We've just got to stick with it and stay with it longer and harder, I don't know how many missed shots we had," Marleau said. "If we can hit the net that much more, the better our chances." The Sharks were 1-for-6 on the power play, including 0-for-3 in the third period. "We're running up against a good goaltender. We've got to keep going and persevere," San Jose's Joe Thornton said.

"We've just got to stay calm. We're playing good hockey, but for whatever reason we're down 3-0." An apparent early first-period goal by San Jose's Joe Pavelski was disallowed following a video review. As Pavelski battled Duncan Keith for a rebound in front of the net during a power play less than two minutes in, the puck went into the net. But after the review, officials ruled that Pavelski directed the puck in with his skate and waved it off.

* AP