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Chicago Blackhawks right wing Dustin Byfuglien celebrates after scoring goal against the San Jose Sharks during third period hockey action in Game 4 of the NHL Western Conference final Sunday, May 23, 2010 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Charles Rex Arbogast

It was moments before puck drop Sunday when the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp approached team captain Jonathan Toews with a question. "Sharpie said, 'Got any plans for after the game?'" Toews reported. "I thought he meant for dinner."

Uh, no, actually.

Sharp was wondering what Toews's plans were for the Clarence Campbell Bowl, just in case the Blackhawks completed their sweep of the San Jose Sharks in the NHL Western Conference final. There is a superstition associated with the trophy, because most teams see it as an unnecessary piece of hardware, signifying one more step along the Stanley Cup path. It may be a necessary step and a step that the Blackhawks failed to complete last spring, but it is a step just the same.

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So when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly ventured onto the ice at the United Center after the game, where 22,224 delirious fans were celebrating a 4-2 Blackhawks' victory, Toews politely skated over, posed for the obligatory picture and then moved back to rejoin his teammates.

Chicago had just squeezed out a close victory over the Sharks. The winner came off Dustin Byfuglien's stick with 5:55 to go in regulation, the insurance goal an empty-netter from Kris Versteeg, enabling the Blackhawks to qualify for the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 18 years.

Toews was four in 1992, growing up in Winnipeg when that team - coached by Mike Keenan with a young Jeremy Roenick leading the way - was swept out of the final by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mario Lemieux. The Blackhawks came up short that year and Roenick and Co. never made it back to the dance, a lesson that Toews and his equally precocious linemate Patrick Kane understand only too well.

These opportunities to win a championship don't come along every year. You need a little of everything to go your way - a little luck, reasonable good health, timely scoring - to get to where the Blackhawks are today, awaiting the winner of the Philadelphia Flyers-Montreal Canadiens series over in the Eastern Conference.

So the Clarence Campbell Bowl?

"It's a made-up trophy for winning the Western Conference," Toews said. "Big deal. It's not what we're after. We're here to win the Stanley Cup.

"We're going to keep going. We're not satisfied yet."

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Byfuglien, the 257-pound immovable force that spent the past four games making life miserable for Sharks' goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, produced his third game winner of the series. Byfuglien had had a quiet game until that point, but he was in the right place at the right time to snuff out the last little bit of San Jose's playoff life.

It was that kind of game and that kind of series for the Blackhawks. At no point did they overwhelm the Sharks, the way a four-and-out series implies. But they were efficient and opportunistic and that turned out to be enough.

"Just the killer instinct we had being down two goals," Toews said. "It's easy for any team to pack it in and say, 'We've got another three games to do this.' But we wanted to do it at home and we wanted to win bad. We're ready to move onto the next round.

"You can't just come into the series and expect to sweep somebody, especially a team like San Jose. We worked hard for it and we weren't going to let this game slip away."

San Jose was the better team for long periods Sunday afternoon again, especially in the first 30 minutes, but Chicago gradually took over. For the Sharks, another season that began with great expectations ended in frustration.

"It was close, but it was a sweep and we have to understand that the level has to be even greater," Sharks' captain Rob Blake said. "The further you go in the playoffs, the harder it gets. They controlled the tempo throughout this series."

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The Blackhawks move on, four wins away from doing something that hasn't happened here since 1961, a Stanley Cup championship.

"Last year, we felt we were very close, but just didn't have enough in us," Toews said. "We were young and obviously that inexperience did catch up to us a little bit."

This year, with Toews leading the charge, nothing seems to be standing in Chicago's way.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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