Western Conference Finals Game 4 – Sharks season over, Blackhawks advance to Stanley Cup Finals with 4-2 win

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Monday, May 24, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Western Conference Finals San Jose Sharks Chicago Blackhawks Chicago Sun Times Hawks Win

Western Conference Finals San Jose Sharks Chicago Blackhawks Chicago Tribune Hawkeytown

Western Conference Finals San Jose Sharks Chicago Blackhawks Red Eye Ice Land

Western Conference Finals San Jose Sharks Chicago Blackhawks San Jose Mercury News bowing out

The Sharks giving up a 2-goal lead and being swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals can be considered nothing other than a failure. Fans, media and players can point to close games, or reestablishing a team identity based on heart, character, and a belief that they can overcome obstacles. The 93-year old National Hockey League is a results oriented business, and the bottom line is that the Western Conference regular season champions could not win a single game against the Campbell Trophy winning Western Conference playoff champion Chicago Blackhawks.

The city of Chicago can now rally around the Blackhawks first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1992, when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr lead the Penguins to a 4-0 sweep of their own. The original six franchise also has an opportunity to release themselves from the longest championship drought in the NHL, a 49-year stretch that is not even a distant memory for a majority of the youth-infused Chicago fan base.

For San Jose, it is a difficult situation but 2010 has to be included in the annals of postseason shortcomings. The Sharks may have carried a majority of the play in three of the four games in the series, but that and 50 cents still will not buy a cup of coffee at Tim Hortons. They were beaten, and they were beaten resoundingly.

Chicago’s top line of Byfuglien-Toews-Kane registered 15 points (5G, 10A) to Marleau-Thornton-Heatley’s 9 (5G, 4A). The Sharks top-3 were mixed later in the series, but outside Marleau’s 5 goals no one on the Sharks top line scored. Meanwhile converted defenseman Dustin Byfuglien scored a goal in each game, including 3 game winners. Only rookies Logan Couture and defenseman Jason Demers added secondary scoring for San Jose. Chicago received secondary scoring up front from Dave Bolland (2), Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp (2), Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer. The defenses produced offense at a similar pace, 1 goal and 7 assists, but the speed and transition game of the Chicago blueline often resulted in a track meet in the opposite direction against the Sharks.

The starkest difference may have been in goal. While technically a few weeks too old to be considered a true NHL rookie, rookie Finnish goaltender Antti Niemi proved to be the game breaking talent in the Conference Finals. He outplayed former NHL Allstar, Vezina finalist, and former Calder rookie of the year winner Evgeni Nabokov. Niemi bent, but did not break in the series, and he kept the games in hand long enough for a rolling Blackhawks offense to put points on the board. A calm and poised Niemi showed none of the jitters former #1 Cristobal Huet displayed in the past, and he made Chicago’s confidence bordering on arrogance possible stopping 129 of 136 shots against.

Evgeni Nabokov was good, and possibly very good in stretches over 3 playoff rounds, but he did not steal enough games to put him on that elite playoff pedestal many expected him to be on. At times against Colorado and Chicago he had difficulty tracking the puck through traffic, which during several recent regular seasons has been a strength of his. The Sharks have had nearly a 50% turnover on the blueline in each of the last two seasons, and unfortunately each defensive pairing took a small step back on both sides of the ice in 2010. Nabokov is at his best when he is confident, aggressive and challenging shooters at the top of the crease. That level of anticipation requires a faith that the defense will clear bodies and rebounds from out in front of the crease. In each of the last 2 seasons, that defensive support decreased slightly. There were several goals that were clearly Nabokov’s responsiblity to make the first save on, and despite a renewed focus to become more of a team player this season, the Sharks never seemed to build on his play enough in the series.

An extra goal or an extra bounce here or there does not take into account the Blackhawks overflowing confidence, and complete lack of respect for what used to be a potent and dangerous San Jose Sharks squad. It is a shot accross the bow for one regular analyst in San Jose who said actions taken in the regular season have no carryover for the playoffs. If the Sharks learned anything from this 4-0 series defeat, they should have learned to treat every future shift against Chicago, whether regular, preseason, or pickup hockey outside the United Center, as a meeting between mortal enemies.

They needed to play old school hockey against the Blackhawks, add a little hate to the game as Don Cherry would say. Instead they afforded the Blackhawks forwards too much respect, and allowed Patrick Kane to generate as much speed through the neutral zone as he desired. A shorthanded clearing shot by Patrick Marleau battered the face of defenseman Duncan Keith, but the larger Sharks forwards never ground down the Blackhawks defense physically like they did against Colorado. Early in the series they tried, with Clowe, Setoguchi and Murray lining up hits, but more often than not they were a step and a couple of feet too late.

Speed kills, and against San Jose it made them look completely ineffectual for far too many shifts. San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan framed the series loss as a building block the franchise can use to advance in the future. “We’ve come a long way as an organization. We won the Presidents’ Trophy last year. We went into a situation against Anaheim where we didn’t play very well. You know, we held an evaluation of our team that was very intense and we scrutinized it very closely. A number of players were put on notice. We made a number of changes,” McLellan said of how the team addressed last year’s loss to Anaheim in the first round.

Another factor was the forward depth of Chicago. While head coaches Todd McLellan and Mike Babcock kept the WCSF series to a mostly 3-line affair, critical shutdown shifts by the third line of Ladd-Bolland-Versteeg, and consistent physical play by the fourth line of Eager-Madden-Burish, provided an edge in the WCF. Bolland held Joe Thornton to 1 assist, and Eager was only credited with 11 hits but in reality registered several more. The Sharks third line struggled, Couture was hustled off the end boards by Bolland for the tying goal in game 4, Malhotra was more often than not a non-factor. The fourth line, subbing one forward with 7 defenseman dressed, contributed energy in bursts. Nichol won several key right handed draws, and Jamie Mcginn saw his ice time bumped from 5 minutes in the first two games, to 7 and 10 minutes in the final two based on work ethic.

“I think we can look at what the Blackhawks did last year and how they grew through losing. Sometimes it’s part of the process. Jumbo now has been there. I looked at Jonathan Toews’ statistics, I think he ended up with 13 points, they went out in this round. Now look at him, what he’s got there, close to 30. He’s been there, he’s done it. Their team has been there and done it. They’ve learned through it. I’d like to think we could be that team,” McLellan said of this year’s loss to Chicago.

Moral victories and playoff defeats as learning tools are becoming increasingly difficult to swallow for a market that starts each season with the promise of Stanley Cup silver. A series sweep by Chicago should hurt for San Jose players and fans, and regardless of what the outcome of next year’s postseaosn is, that feathered Indian should have a target on him for 2010-11.

Video highlights from the game are available via youtube here.

[Update] Byfuglien does it again, sending Hawks to Final – Dave Lozo for NHL.com.

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.

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