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Surprise! Blackhawks deliver another

This hasn't been a textbook playoffs for the Chicago Blackhawks, unless that textbook is "How To Succeed In Hockey By Trying Every Other Game."

But Chicago's 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday at General Motors Place was pretty close to perfect. The Hawks never trailed, and even though they were outhit 40-21, the Canucks' feistiness resulted in 10 penalties and two power-play goals for Chicago.

If Vancouver was annoyed with Chicago's chippiness before, imagine how they feel after old "Big Buff" returned to give them nightmares. Game 4 might just end with an all-out brawl, the way this grudge match is heading.

The unquestioned star of the game was Dustin "Big Buff" Byfuglien, who was scoreless in the playoffs, wound up playing on the top line, and got himself a hat trick by taking up space in front of Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, just like he did in last season's playoff series win. Byfuglien got his third goal in the third period, though it was actually credited to Patrick Kane at first.

"Sometimes it happens to a guy," Byfuglien said. "We've been working hard. I was trying to work hard myself. It finally paid off."

"Big Buff," Jonathan Toews said. "He's doing what he's got to do out there. I know battling against him in practice, you can't really move him."

Kris Versteeg gave the Hawks the lead in the first period, and Marian Hossa gave Chicago some cushion in the third.

Just when you think you have these Hawks figured out, they surprise you. And just when you think maybe this team, so strong all season, doesn't have the finishing power to make a deep run in the playoffs, they look again like world beaters.

"We don't want to settle in," Toews said. "We want to keep pushing out of our comfort zone and getting better. Tonight was probably a more complete performance than Game 2, so we're happy about that."

Things went so well, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville even successfully answered a postgame question in French.

"You don't know how hard that was," he said, breaking into a smile.

It was that kind of night for Chicago, and this was the kind of win that the Hawks' home crowd has been salivating for, as the Hawks have vacillated between heart attack wins and heartbreaking losses at the United Center.

Chicago is now up 2-1 in these Western Conference semifinals, and I'm contractually obligated as a sportswriter to spout some cliché about this "being a long series" with "plenty of hockey to play."

There has been a sense of déjà vu about these playoffs, linking this team to the other Chicago postseason failures, mostly coming on the North Side. And combine that civic cynicism with the unpredictability of the NHL playoffs, and you have a recipe for pessimism. Essentially, I've been waiting for the other skate to drop, so I could write about another Chicago failure. And it still may come true, but now I'm doubting my own skepticism.

Watching the Hawks break out of their self-induced ennui these past two games, not to mention the way they avoided disaster against Nashville, you have to think this team is over itself now, and can smell a series victory and a shot at the San Jose Sharks for the conference title. In this game, we saw a confident, energetic and, most importantly, consistent team, the one we've been waiting for these past two weeks.

Goaltender Antti Niemi was brilliant, especially in the first period, when he stonewalled an aggressive Canucks attack as the Blackhawks took a 2-0 lead. Chicago is now 4-1 in the playoffs when they score first, and 5-0 when Adam Burish plays.

Burish and Ben Eager were captured in a classic picture in Game 2, spraying Luongo with snow and then heckling Alexandre Burrows late in the game. Showers of snow and expletives don't win games, but they add a little something, don't they?

Byfuglien and Niemi were the stars of this game, and both give me a sense of optimism about the rest of this series.


Byfuglien, who had to play defense when that group was depleted by injuries late in the season and in the first round, was moved back to offense at the start of the series, and wound up playing on a line with the young guns, Kane and Toews.

"Those two, they're a couple of young players that are fun to play with," Byfuglien said. "You just want to get them the puck and let them do work with it, and just be around the net."

Byfuglien scored twice on power plays and finished with the franchise's first road hat trick in the playoffs since 1988, when Denis Savard did it in St. Louis.

"He was picking up where he left off last year," Quenneville said. "He was a major factor. That versatility, being able to go from defense and up front, is a huge asset for this team."

All five of the Hawks' goals came on rebounds and net play, as Luongo struggled with rebounds. No such problem for Niemi, who had 31 saves. Both of Vancouver's goals came in the second period.

"He was great," Quenneville said. "He had a strong game."

The Hawks helped Niemi with 16 blocked shots, which is indicative of the way they played with controlled fury. Both teams traded shoves and shoulders all night, giving this game a real playoff feel. It was beautiful, kinetic hockey, and for the Blackhawks, it was a return to form.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.