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Chicago Blackhawks Dustin Byfuglien (C) celebrates his overtime goal against the San Jose Sharks with team mates during Game 3 of their NHL Western Conference final hockey game in Chicago, May 21, 2010. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (JEFF HAYNES)
Chicago Blackhawks Dustin Byfuglien (C) celebrates his overtime goal against the San Jose Sharks with team mates during Game 3 of their NHL Western Conference final hockey game in Chicago, May 21, 2010. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (JEFF HAYNES)

Hawks inch closer to Cup Add to ...

Dave Bolland is known to his teammates as the Rat - homage to his persistent checking style, reminiscent of a player from an earlier generation named Ken Linseman, who also specialized in getting under the skin of an opponent.

But Bolland did more than just agitate Friday night. He was also percolating offensively.

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After scoring the third-period go-ahead goal on a breakaway for the Chicago Blackhawks, it was also Bolland in overtime who found Dustin Byfuglien open in the high slot, setting up the game-winning goal in a thrilling 3-2 win for the home team.

With the victory, Chicago opened up a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference final The Blackhawks can wrap up the series with a win Sunday at the United Centre, which saw 22,311 spectators - including mega-fan Vince Vaughn - cram into the building for last night's Chicago victory.

How did Byfuglien get so wide open on the winning goal?

"I have no clue," answered Bolland. "Everybody was coming towards me and I just threw it in front and Nabokov was still sitting there. I think Buff put it in the top-hand corner just to be sure.

"Buff's a big boy, so when he's coming, he's coming hard. He won't stop."

The Sharks scrambled their lines to get Bolland away from his primary check, Joe Thornton, and it worked at different times.

"Back in junior, I used to do the same thing Joe was doing (scoring goals)," said Bolland. "When I came here, it was a little different. Junior is way different than the NHL; it's a huge step.

"It's more fun scoring goals - and a lot easier too."

Bolland was asked where his fourth playoff goal of the post-season ranked among his all-time goals.

"Pretty high," he said.

Jonathan Toews - a ka Captain Serious - continues to be Captain Fantastic for the Blackhawks in the 2010 playoffs and ran his playoff points streak to 12 games, with a pair of assists. The Blackhawks weren't necessarily at their best at all times last night, but thankfully for them, Bolland, Toews and goaltender Antti Niemi were.

At the start of the playoffs, goaltending was supposed to be Chicago's weak link. Some were pro-Niemi, but the vast majority were anti-Niemi, thinking that his lack of playoff experience might be the Achilles heel for one of the NHL's best young teams. But Niemi had all the answers again last night, turning aside 39 shots in regulation and faced 46 in all.

"Yes, overtime is stressful, but if you stress about that, you're going to be worse," said Niemi. "You don't want to think any negative thoughts at all. You just want to keep focus on the play and the puck. That's all you can do - and hope for the best."

Niemi's best was good enough last night.

Patrick Marleau was a one-man wrecking crew for the Sharks, scoring two goals - he has produced San Jose's last four goals in the series - but it wasn't enough. It was a game that seesawed back and forth all night. Toews blocked a shot by Dan Boyle to spring Bolland on a third-period breakaway, putting Chicago ahead for the first time in the game with just 6:55 to go in regulation. Marleau answered that only 142 seconds later, briefly giving the Sharks renewed life.

The Sharks received six chances with the man advantage, but converted just one - Marleau's first, on a two-man advantage. Bolland was in the penalty box three times and acknowledged afterwards, he was a little worried.

For his part, Sharks' coach Todd McLellan thought his team had chances to win it on special teams, but couldn't find that one extra gear with the man advantage.

"If there was a part of our game that we have to go back and improve," said McLellan, "because we had opportunities in the third period on the power play, where we could have got the lead, or established ourselves in the game, and we didn't do that. I'd like to see our power play a little sharper, but remember, they're a good penalty-killing team. They've got this far because of it."

Toews' assist on Sharp's goal broke a tie with Hall Of Famer Stan Mikita for the longest playoff scoring streak in team history. It was Mikita's 70th birthday Thursday night; he watched the proceedings from a private box and was there, applauding when Sharp scored. Mikita's streak came in the 1962 playoffs.

As a goaltender, Niemi is exceptionally good at taking away the bottom of the net. The Sharks looked as if they were trying to go high on him all night, with only moderate success.

"It's not a (conscious thing)," said Niemi, of the way he seemingly stops everything along the ice. "It's just the butterfly style; and that's part of it. It's kind of planned, but I think every goalie tries to do it."

The first period finished scoreless, only because an apparent goal by Joe Pavelski was disallowed because he kicked the puck in. Chicago's best scoring chance probably came when Ben Eager, open in front of an empty net, couldn't get his stick on a centering pass.

It was another frustrating night for the Blackhawks' slumping sniper Marian Hossa, who isn't just getting stopped by Sharks' goaltender Evgeni Nabokov anymore. Last night, midway through the second, he was faced with an open net - and couldn't get it past a sliding defenceman Rob Blake, who mae the save with Nabokov down and out.

At the other end, Dany Heatley was buzzing around the Blackhawks' goal all night and looked as dangerous as he's been all playoffs. It was Heatley's shot from point blank range that set up Marleau for the tying goal, briefly giving the Sharks life.

Byfuglien snuffed that out in OT - and now San Jose will need a miracle a la Philadelphia over Boston earlier in these playoffs in order to qualify for the first Stanley Cup final in franchise history.

Not looking too good right now.





Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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