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Big Buff comes up big as 'Hawks seize command of West finals

The local CBS affiliate ran a poll the other day asking if the Blackhawks should wear their white road jerseys or if the 22,000 lunatics in the United Center should greet their entrance for Game 3 of the Western Conference final Friday with a lusty chorus of boos just to make them feel less at home.

For the Blackhawks, seemingly the playoffs had become a question of location, location, location. They had won seven straight on the road while having split their six home games prior to meeting the San Jose Sharks. (The focus on the small details on the road can trump the adrenaline boost at home; entering last night, home teams were 38-41 in the playoffs.) On the road in the Bay Area prior to the start of the series, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville organized a visit to Alcatraz. There was no urge to take his wards for a tour of the old Joliet Prison -- back in 2002 when that renowned correctional facility shut down the moribund Blackhawks couldn't get arrested in this town -- but he did sequester the team in a downtown hotel after the morning skate Friday to replicate that mint-on-the-pillow mood. Blackhawks checking center John Madden was familiar with the on-the-road-at-home drill. When he was winning Stanley Cups with New Jersey, the Devils used to be quarantined for the duration of the playoffs in a Bergen County hotel called the Glenpointe, which, of course, the players dubbed the Gun Point. Apparently room service will take a team only so far.

Home, road, on the street -- this brilliant game could have been played anywhere. The venue was less important than where it will wind up: in the time capsule of memory. The Sharks, destiny's doormats, covered themselves with glory for more than three and a half periods, then left the biggest of the Blackhawks, Dustin Byfuglien, uncovered for half a second, and Chicago skated off with a classic 3-2 overtime victory.

"It was fast, end-to-end, a lot of scoring chances," Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell said. "They played great tonight." Maybe the resolute Sharks can play better in Game 4 Sunday to avoid a sweep, but it hardly seems possible. Patrick Marleau had both Sharks goals for the second straight game -- coach Todd McLellan: "That's as good as I've seen him play, determined, committed, working real hard over the rink," -- and goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who tends to withdraw deeper into his crease in pressure situations, dared to play outside the blue paint and thwarted the Blackhawks. On the power play, the Sharks outshot Chicago, 14-1. They forced Antti Niemi to make 44 saves, just as he had in Game 1.

"I was really happy with the way our team played," McLellan said, who cited the Philadelphia comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston in its second round series as inspiration. "We can draw on that, plus the fact we've been in this series for every minute. That's got to leave us feeling good. We've got to dig our way out." Chicago does not look like a team about to fur-ball this series. They are not the excitable, callow team that was derailed by Detroit in the conference finals last year. The Blackhawks have learned how to take a figurative punch and find a way to win the game, in part because of the emergence of Byfuglien and second-line center Dave Bolland.

Bolland has been a revelation. He had been given the responsibility of checking Sharks center Joe Thornton in the first two games in San Jose, a task he performed with such flair that Jumbo Joe slashed Bolland on the hands during a faceoff in Game 2. "A love tap," Bolland called it. Well, so there. Prior to Game 3, Thornton said Bolland, in fact, was not at all difficult to play against, what with the Hawks center being a mere six feet or so and not even weighing 200 pounds. Sticks and stones, baby.

Bolland has been hurt by far worse this season. He missed 41 games, half the season, because of surgery for a bulging disc in his back. "It sucks sitting around doing nothing for three months, just me lying on my back watching TV," said Bolland, nicknamed The Rat. "Sick of seeing these trainers. Good to be back."

He was in the middle of everything, especially the middle of the penalty box where Bolland spent a whopping 5:58. With Bolland off for holding and Marian Hossa banished 33 seconds later on the kind of hooking call that falls under the category of strict-constructionist penalty, Chicago trios of Madden, Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson -- and later Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook -- kept fending off the Sharks until a broken play and a bounce off the end boards early in the second period. Marleau cashed in by cheating from the point and whipping a shot that ticked off goalie Niemi's glove with two seconds left in the two-man advantage.

Chicago needed only three minutes to respond with a power play goal of its own. With Byfuglien occupying Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray in front of the net goalie -- that was a solid quarter ton of prime hockey beef muscling up in front of Nabokov -- Toews was able to slide a pass across the crease to Patrick Sharp, who had crept down the left side for a tap-in backdoor goal. The finish was surgical by Sharp, a sublime and cerebral player who is overshadowed by the Butch-and-Sundance duo of Toews and Patrick Kane, but once again the spotlight shone on the captain. The assist gave Toews a point in 12 straight playoff games, eclipsing a franchise record previously held by Hall of Fame center Stan Mikita. Toews might not be able to grow much of a playoff beard -- he looks like a cross between Wolverine and an Amish buckboard driver -- but the best forward at the Olympic tournament is easily the most complete forward remaining in the playoffs.

Toews would block a Dan Boyle point shot, leading to a Bolland breakaway with seven minutes left in regulation. Bolland, not exactly a graceful skater, deked, went to his forehand and slid a shot that kissed off the post to give Chicago a 2-1 lead.

"I knew I had to do something, come out with a burst of speed," said Bolland, who took three minor penalties. "The puck was right there. I was sitting in the box for two minutes so I knew I had a lot of energy left ... It's a lot more fun scoring goals [than playing against top lines.] A lot easier, too."

But Marleau, the perennial whipping boy for some short San Jose springs, simply would not let the Sharks fold. After Thornton beat Toews on the faceoff -- and Campbell squandered a subsequent opportunity to clear the zone -- Marleau scored off a scramble with fewer than five minutes left in regulation. The Sharks were poised to storm back into the series, but Byfuglien, who is big, came up huge.

Bolland was working the puck behind the net, mesmerizing the Sharks who somehow failed to spot the winger cruising into the high slot. Considering Byfuglien had scored the winner in Game 1 from the slot and added another in Game 2 from the crease, you would have thought he might have attracted some attention.

"Collectively we shouldn't allow the puck to come in there free," McLellan said. "The guy behind the net is not dangerous. Obviously the guy in the slot is." "I just saw him out of the side of my eye," Bolland said. "He was coming down, and nobody can miss Buff. [The winger is 6-foot-3, 257 pounds. Officially.) Nabokov didn't see him coming. Great to see Buff come in and bury it. Cheese (the top part of the net), as well."

There it is ... location, location, location. And for the Sharks, who have played with distinction but not ultimately success, Sunday could mark the start of vacation, vacation, vacation.

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