NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks vs. Sharks, Game 4: Blackhawks sweep Sharks, headed to Stanley Cup finals

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Blackhawks.jpgChicago Blackhawks 4, San Jose Sharks 2

Blackhawks win series 4-0

This moment has been a very long time coming for the Chicago
Blackhawks and their boisterous, enthusiastic fans. Before 2008, the
Blackhawks had not won a playoff series since 1996 and had missed the
playoffs altogether nine times between 1997 and 2008. Even in 1995,
after a strike-shortened season, the deep run was a disappointment with
the team just a few years removed from being swept in the Stanley Cup
finals by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That 1992 team, the last time that the Chicago Blackhawks made it
this far, featured Jeremy Roenick, Steve Larmer, Brent Sutter, Chris
Chelios and Ed Belfour. This was the last truly great Blackhawks team,
nearly two decades ago, and in between nothing but bad ownership,
extreme disappointment, poor television coverage and dwindling crowds.

After Rocky Wirtz took ownership of the team and the likes of Dale
Tallon and Rick Dudley worked their magic on the roster, it’s taken just
two seasons for the Blackhawks to go from being out of the playoffs and
into the Stanley Cup finals. This isn’t a fluke postseason run, either,
where a low-seeded team gets hot at the right time. This was a
calculated season where the Blackhawks dominated all year long with one
goal and one goal only on their minds: the Stanley Cup.

That the Chicago Blackhawks clinched the Western Conference finals at
home, after a convincing sweep of the San Jose Sharks, was fitting.
These Hawks fans, who had been driven away by years of poor ownership
and management, have returned in droves to threaten to give Chicago the
best home-ice advantage in the NHL. It’s obvious how this team thrives
off the energy of the fans, how gracious they were for their support as
they skated around the ice with sticks held high as they celebrated a
tremendous victory.

Don’t let the sweep of the Sharks fool anyone; this was a hard fought
series that provided the big test that the Chicago Blackhawks needed to
prove they’re finally worthy of a Stanley Cup. They completely
overmatched the Nashville Predators and used pure emotion and grit to
take care of a deep and talented Vancouver team. Against the Sharks, a
team with which they almost little history with, they were challenged by
a team that proved just as capable as themselves to put together an
incredible amount of offensive pressure in a very short amount of time.

Several times throughout the series the Sharks were the better team,
controlling play and taking leads in three of the four games. Each time
the Blackhawks battled back, never panicking and showing an innate
ability to ramp up their play to the next level. In Game 4, with the
Sharks controlling play through the first period and most of the second
and then taking a two-goal lead, the Hawks responded with an incredible
counter attack that put the Sharks immediately back on their heals.

This wasn’t about the San Jose Sharks choking away a 2-0 lead, this
as about the Blackhawks responding and taking the game to a lever that
the Sharks just couldn’t compete at. Sometimes, a team is just better
than their opponent and in this series that was the Blackhawks, both
physically and mentally.

The Chicago Blackhawks may not have lost a game in this series to the
Sharks, but the series was much closer than the 4-0 outcome shows. In
tightly contested games and series between two extremely talented teams,
whichever side is able to find any sort of edge over the other is the
one that advances. The Blackhawks used inspired play by Antti Niemi and
Jonathan Toews, as well as incredibly timely goal scoring by the
surprising Dustin Byfuglien, to give themselves the edge to win three
very close games and all of which were decided in the late stages of the
third period or overtime.

It may have been a sweep, but it wasn’t
easy.

The Sharks played at times like a team scared of losing. The
Blackhawks played like a team that knew they were going to win.

For
Antti Niemi, it’s validation that the Blackhawks made the right
decision heading into the postseason as he proved in this series just
how great he can really be. There were times of trepidation in Game 4 as
Niemi looked to have reverted to the shaky goaltending of the regular
season. The team in front of him picked it up instead, limiting the
Sharks to just three shots on goal in the third period. Overall, it was a
magical series for Niemi as he was by far the most important player on
the ice for the Blackhawks against the Sharks.

For all the Patrick
Kane’s, Patrick Sharp’s, Marian Hossa’s and Duncan Ketih’s this team
may have, there has been none more surprising than that of Dustin
Byfuglien. He has scored in five straight games for the Hawks, while
netting the game-winning goal in three of the four games. Not
coincidentally, those three game-winning goals came in the games that
were decided by just one goal and were the tightest contested of all.

The
Chicago Blackhawks of 2010 are a complete team, that just just one
question mark heading into the postseason. With Antti Niemi stepping up,
the Blackhawks are firing on all cylinders and are boasting an
incredible amount of scoring depth. It should be no surprise they’ve
made it this far, and are entering the Stanley Cup finals young, hungry
and supremely confident.

You wonder if the Eastern Conference
champion will even stand a chance.

Matthews headlines additions to Team North America

Auston Matthews of USA celebrates after scoring to take the score to 3-0, during the 2016 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships quarterfinal match between USA and Czech Republic in Helsinki, Finland, on January 2nd, 2016. (Roni Rekomaa / Lehtikuva via AP)  FINLAND OUT - NO SALES
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Can youth and talent win out over experience? Team North America, which is compromised exclusively of Canadian and American players born on or after Oct. 2, 1992, will attempt to do just that.

While you can debate the merit of having a young guns team in the World Cup, for many people there is something interesting about seeing the likes of Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Johnny Gaudreau team up to face the world’s best players. With today’s additions, the projected No. 1 pick for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Auston Matthews, will be joining the squad too.

On defense, Shayne Gostisbehere has been added to the mix after his superb rookie campaign with the Philadelphia Flyers. Another standout from the 2016 rookie class, Colton Parayko, will join him on the blueline.

North America’s already interesting collections of forwards added even more intrigue today. In addition to the aforementioned Matthews, Jonathan Drouin is now on the roster. That illustrates just how quickly the perception of Drouin has changed as earlier this year he was demanding a trade out of Tampa Bay and was even at one time suspended in the AHL for refusing to play. However he ended up being a big part of the reason the Lightning made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final without Steven Stamkos.

The squad also added another first overall pick in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While he hasn’t emerged as a superstar in the same vein as some other No. 1 picks, he’s a useful addition to this deep core of forwards.

At the beginning of the year, North America’s goaltending looked like a potential weakness, but this team might even hold up in that department. After all, if Matt Murray is good enough to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final, then there’s a chance he’ll be able to hold his own in the World Cup as well. And if not, John Gibson is coming off of a pretty good season himself.

Here’s the full roster for Team North America:

G John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
G Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
G Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins

D Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
D Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers *
D Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
D Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets
D Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues *
D Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
D Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets *

F Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
F Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay *
F Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
F Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
F Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings
F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
F Auston Matthews, Zurich (Swiss) *
F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
F J.T. Miller, New York Rangers
F Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames
F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers *
F Brandon Saad, Columbus Blue Jackets
F Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets *

* named to roster today

One player that stands out for his exclusion is Max Domi. He’s coming off of a strong rookie campaign where he scored 18 goals and 52 points in 81 contests with the Arizona Coyotes. His talented teammate Anthony Duclair also failed to make the cut. It’s also somewhat surprising to see Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton and Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau not make the team. You could easily include Alex Galchenyuk in the list of snubs too given that he’s coming off of a 30-goal campaign.

Thornton, Burns among seven added to Canada’s World Cup roster

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 17:  Brent Burns #88 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates with Joe Thornton #19 after scoring a second period goal against Brian Elliott #1 of the St. Louis Blues (not pictured) in Game Two of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 17, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Joe Thornton, Claude Giroux, Matt Duchene, Brad Marchand, Brent Burns, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jake Muzzin have been added to Team Canada’s World Cup roster.

Those seven will join the following 16:

Goalies: Corey Crawford, Carey Price, Braden Holtby

Defense: Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Forwards: Jamie Benn, Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Tyler Seguin, Steve Stamkos, John Tavares, Jonathan Toews

GM Doug Armstrong admitted that it was tough to leave off right-shot d-men like P.K. Subban and Kris Letang, but Pietrangelo was on the 2014 Olympic squad and Burns’ performance this season in San Jose has been tough to overlook. Muzzin, meanwhile, is a left shot who could potentially pair with Doughty, his teammate in Los Angeles.

Up front, Thornton and Giroux made it after being left off the Sochi team. Marchand wasn’t a strong consideration in 2014, but the 37 goals he scored this season for the Bruins put him squarely on Hockey Canada’s radar.

Corey Perry was perhaps the most notable omission among the forwards.

Related: Subban may not make Team Canada

Niederreiter, Gaborik added to Team Europe roster

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 23:  Nino Niederreiter #22 of the Minnesota Wild skates prior to playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on March 23, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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This might be the ultimate underdog group, but Team Europe isn’t short on talent. Compromised of players outside of the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, and Sweden, this squad features players from nations that don’t typically excel in international tournaments, but will attempt to upset the hockey powerhouses with their combined talents.

The original 16 players named featured representatives from Denmark, Slovakia, Switzlerland, Germany, Slovenia, Austria and Norway. Today’s additions included Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Luca Sbisa from France and Italy respectively, bringing the number of nations represented to nine.

Two of the biggest names added today, though, were Nino Niederreiter and Marian Gaborik. Niederreiter, 23, hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, but the 23-year-old has established himself as a meaningful part of the Minnesota Wild after he struggled in the early years of his pro career with the New York Islanders. Gaborik is coming off of a rough campaign, but he has three 40-plus goal seasons on his resume.

Team Europe also added a veteran blueliner in Christian Ehrhoff in addition to Sbisa.

In goal they now have Thomas Greiss to work with his Islanders teammate Jaroslav Halak. Greiss has spent most of his NHL career serving as a backup goaltender, but when given the chance he stepped up with the Islanders this season and had an impressive showing against Florida in the first round of the playoffs.

Here is Team Europe’s roster in full:

G Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks (Denmark)
G Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders (Slovakia)
G Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders (Germany) *

D Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins (Slovakia)
D Christian Ehrhoff, Chicago Blackhawks (Germany) *
D Roman Josi, Nashville Predators (Switzerland)
D Luca Sbisa, Vancouver Canucks (Italy) *
D Dennis Seidenberg, Boston Bruins (Germany)
D Andrej Sekera, Edmonton Oilers (Slovakia)
D Mark Streit, Philadelphia Flyers (Switzerland)

F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Philadelphia Flyers (France) *
F Mikkel Boedker, Colorado Avalanche (Denmark)
F Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Germany)
F Marian Gaborik, Los Angeles Kings (Slovakia) *
F Jannik Hansen, Vancouver Canucks (Denmark)
F Marian Hossa, Chicago Blackhawks (Slovakia)
F Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings (Slovenia)
F Nino Niederreiter, New York Islanders (Switzerland) *
F Frans Nielsen, New York Islanders (Denmark)
F Tobias Rieder, Arizona Coyotes (Germany) *
F Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings (Slovakia)
F Thomas Vanek, Minnesota Wild (Austria)
F Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers (Norway)

* named to roster today

Kessel left off Team USA for World Cup

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on before a face off in the first period against the New Jersey Devils on March 6, 2016 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Phil Kessel‘s terrific playoff wasn’t enough to win over USA Hockey.

On Friday, the Americans completed their 23-man roster for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and passed on Kessel in favor of four other forwards: David Backes, James van Riemsdyk, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky.

Defensemen Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson and Matt Niskanen also made the team.

Kessel, who has nine goals and 18 points through 19 postseason contests, was one of the most noteworthy snubs. Others included another stellar playoff performer — Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson — Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan, New Jersey’s Kyle Palmieri and the Islanders’ Kyle Okposo.

It’s worth mentioning that Ryan and Okposo were two of the most notable “snubs” from the American team that finished fourth in Sochi.

On defense, Carolina’s Justin Faulk (who played in Sochi), St. Louis’ Kevin Shattenkirk, Boston’s Torey Krug and the Islanders’ Nick Leddy were all passed over.

The full 23-man roster:

G Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning
G Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
G Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils

D Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets
D John Carlson, Washington Capitals
D Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche *
D Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets *
D Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers
D Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals *
D Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

F Justin Abdelkader, Detroit Red Wings
F David Backes, St. Louis Blues *
F Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning *
F Brandon Dubinsky, Columbus Blue Jackets *
F Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
F Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks
F T.J. Oshie, Washington Capitals
F Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens
F Zach Parise, Minnesota Wild
F Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
F Derek Stepan, New York Rangers
F James van Riemsdyk, Toronto Maple Leafs *
F Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

* named to roster today

It’s probably worth pointing out that two of the seven players named to the roster today — Dubinsky and Jack Johnson — play for Team USA head coach John Tortorella in Columbus.

A third, Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan, was the captain in New York when Tortorella coached the Rangers.