Brouwer's return lifts Hawks' spirits
The Hawks put together a complete performance in Game 6 in Vancouver
On the Blackhawks' last goal of the Western Conference semifinals, Dustin Byfuglien still wound up on all fours with a Canuck draped over him.
It was both fitting and fleeting as cameras caught Byfuglien on the Hawks' bench seconds later with a wide smile on his face.
For the second straight year, the Hawks will play for a place in the Stanley Cup Finals, happily continuing their Western road swing by flying from Vancouver to San Jose for the conference finals after dispatching the Canucks 5-1.
The Hawks took the contentious series 4-2, saving their best all-around game for last with a disciplined yet high-tempo effort that saw the two teams feeling each other out in the first period before the visitors took control with three goals in the second period -- the first two by Troy Brouwer and Kris Versteeg within 36 seconds -- and two more by Patrick Kane and Byfuglien within 25 seconds in the third.
Dave Bolland's short-handed goal with 45 seconds left in the second to give the Hawks a 3-0 lead was the back-breaker. And Antti Niemi held the Canucks scoreless through the first two periods, finishing with 29 saves. But it was Brouwer, a healthy scratch in the last three games, whose presence seemed to lift the entire team.
"He's been going through so much and to see a guy come back and score the first goal for us and get the ball rolling, was special," Versteeg said. "It was nice to see him back on the ice and doing what he does best."
Brouwer was back in his hometown, where he was able to visit his father, who had been hospitalized with a blood clot in his brain.
"It helped me a lot to see how much progress he made," Brouwer said. "It was a big morale booster for me and brought quite a bit of confidence and some good life to me."
His teammates played with confidence as well, shaking off some missed scoring chances in the first but making one particularly strong impression early as Byfuglien crushed Alexander Edler into the boards and knocked the Canucks defenseman out of the game late in the period.
Though Sami Salo played Tuesday night -- six words that forever wins him the admiration of men everywhere -- the Canucks defenseman, who sustained a scary injury to the groin area in Game 5, was clearly not at full strength. And with Edler out, the Canucks' were at a decided disadvantage.
But in the end, as it was anticipated in the beginning, it was the Hawks' superior speed and skill that carried them to back-to-back conference finals for the first time since 1989 and 1990.
It did follow form in one way as the visiting team won five of six games in the series, a stark contrast for both teams from the regular season. That is particularly for Vancouver, which had the NHL's second-best home record and set a franchise record with 30 wins.
"Something about this place gets me going and fired up," Byfuglien said. "I don't know if it's the fans or what, but we seem to do well."
The Hawks, 5-1 on the road this postseason, can only hope to keep that going as they begin the next series on the road. (They were 2-0 in San Jose this season and 3-1-0 overall against the Sharks.)
"We like the way our approach has been on the road," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "We're disappointed with the way we've played at home. I think it has been confusing to everyone in the league in the playoffs. But we've got a little momentum our first game in the last two series [both losses] have not been good and we want to make sure we start at the same pace we had today."
In top-seeded San Jose, the second-seeded Hawks get a team with two of the top lines in the league, a team that dispatched the Red Wings with ease, a team that one would assume will not allow its opponent to get away with the sort of lapses the Hawks have displayed this postseason.
"Detroit is such a great team and has been so good for such a long time, it was surprising for [San Jose] to be able to finish them off that quick," said Kane, who had, uncharacteristically, vanished at times this series, but finished with a goal and assist late. "It's sometimes the way series go. Who would think we would win three in a row against a great team like Vancouver? It's just the way it is sometimes. It's why we play the game. I think this matches up for a great series."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.