Dustin Byfuglien proved to be a real shark killer.
The Chicago Blackhawks enforcer scored his third game-winning goal of the series as his team defeated the visiting San Jose Sharks 4-2 in Game 4 Sunday, completing the series sweep in the NHL's Western Conference final.
"Seems like he likes the spotlight. He likes being the hero. He steps up 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 as it searches for its first NHL title since 1961, more than two decades before many of the current players were born. The Blackhawks are guaranteed home-ice advantage since they finished with more points than both the Canadiens and the Flyers.
"It's an honour to be going to the Stanley Cup. We beat a very good team over there. It wasn't easy," Byfuglien said.
Game 4 was a tight battle, with the Sharks jumping out to a 2-0 lead before allowing the Blackhawks to tie it up by the end of the second period.
The Sharks ran into penalty trouble in the third period, which proved to be the difference.
"It was a bit of a slow third period for us," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said. "We took a lot of penalties, and burnt a lot of players out just trying to kill them."
San Jose took three straight penalties in the final frame, giving the Blackhawks a golden opportunity to seal the deal. Byfuglien found the back of the net at 14:05 on his team's third man-advantage of the period.
The bulky forward planted himself in front Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov and redirected a pass from Patrick Kane for the winner.
"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 head coach Joel Quenneville's best adjustments.
Kris Versteeg added an empty-netter at 19:18.
Chicago goalie Antii Niemi was solid, stopping 16 of 18 shots to secure the win.
"I'm happy and proud of the guys, the way they came back today," Quenneville said. The series was a lot closer than it looks."
San Jose appeared to be off to a good start, with Logan Couture opening the scoring at 11:08 of the first period.
The Sharks showed a sense of urgency, facing elimination for the first time in this year's playoffs.
Their aggressive play led to Couture's goal, as Devin Setoguchi won the puck battle along the boards before firing a shot at the Chicago net. Niemi made the initial save, but Couture put the rebound home.
San Jose controlled the play for most of the opening frame, forcing the Blackhawks to the perimeter and preventing the Chicago snipers from getting a single shot on goal during one 10-minute stretch.
The Sharks went up 2-0 when Patrick Marleau scored short-handed at 7:35.
A frantic sequence created the opportunity, as Sharks defenceman Marc-Edourd Vlasic blocked Patrick Kane's one-timer shot in the San Jose zone. Marleau's clearing attempt hit Duncan Keith in the face before taking a Sharks bounce, setting up a 3-on-2 rush.
The Blackhawks fought back with two second-period goals. Brent Seabrook got credit for Chicago's first tally at 13:15 after a video replay reversed an initial on-ice ruling of no goal. Dave Bolland tied the game at 2-2 five minutes later.
The Sharks came within a razor's edge of regaining the lead early in the third period, but a shot from the high slot by Setoguchi went off the stick of teammate Joe Thornton and hit the crossbar.
Marleau, who was been playing his best hockey of the playoffs, finished his post-season on a hot streak, with six goals in his past five games. But it wasn't nearly good enough to avoid another playoff disappointment for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Marleau and Nabokov will be unrestricted free agents this summer, and there's speculation that veteran defenceman Rob Blake may retire.
"There's a level of frustration about the way we approached this whole series," Blake said. "We put ourselves in a position to be successful throughout the season and we didn't accomplish what we needed to."