Looking back at game 4, Chicago vs Sharks - a clean sweep

Game 4 of the Blackhawks vs Sharks game was incredible on so many levels, the best of which was that the game sealed the deal - with a sweep, no less - that would send the Hawks to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992. The youngest of the Blackhawks stars, Patrick Kane, wasn't even in kindergarden yet the last time that the Hawks got a good look at the spotlight.

As a long-time fan (11 years and counting) of the Blackhawks, I felt fortunate to go to a decent amount of games this year, especially during the playoffs. Round 3, Game 4, is a game that will remain in my memory a long, long time.

Going into the game, everybody seemed to feel the Blackhawks would sweep the Sharks. I've been a Chicago sports fan long enough to feel cautiously optimistic while simultaneously feeling nauseous with excitement and anxiety.

After stumbling their way through the series against Nashville, and slugging it out against Vancouver, the Hawks came up against the team that had beaten them out for the regular-season best-in-the-West points standing - by a single point. The difference between the two teams was no slimmer than a single OT game.

The Sharks went into the third round weighed down by the "chokers" label. The Blackhawks went into the series with the weight of a year of expectations on their shoulders. Although the Sharks battled tremendously against Chicago, the Hawks continued to adapt, adapt, and adapt, coming up with wins in game after game.

Games 1 and 3 could've easily gone either way - if it wasn't for Antti Niemi's stand-on-his-head performances in both. In the regular season, most people regarded him as a question mark: who was this unknown goaltender, backing up one of the biggest-name teams in the NHL? Could the Hawks make it through a single round - nevermind three rounds - with this guy as starter? For the record, I've had faith in Niemi since day one, and it has been a thrill to see him manage to earn the starter position and more importantly, pull out the kinds of performances that have kept his team in the running, day in and day out.

Game 4 could've gone either way, too. The Hawks started off, looking solid but doing a whole lot of nothing, with virtually no shots on goal for nearly 15 minutes of the first period. The passes connected, everything looked clean and pretty... oh wait, we've heard this before. Were they trying for pretty?

The Sharks scored at 11:08 into the first period, but it took a few more minutes for the Hawks to rouse themselves and turn things around. They began shooting more and refamiliarizing themselves with the crease. When the Sharks pulled ahead 2-0 on a goal by Marleau just over 7-1/2 minutes into the second, the crowd at the UC for once did not shut up. The fans were not about to let the Hawks roll over and play dead on this one, dammit. They wanted this series over with, and a berth in the Stanley Cup finals firmly in hand.

Apparently, the team did, too, because they tied up the score by the end of the second. The first goal was the tide-changer; Brent Seabrook scored and it was initially waved off as no goal. But after a lengthy review - with the crowd on their feet and seriously PO'ed - it was determined that the puck had been well over the goal line before being scooped out by one of the Sharks, and the goal was valid.

They played "Chelsea Dagger" extra-long for that, and before the end of the period, Dave Bolland scored to make it 2-2. The crowd was entirely fired up by this point, and it would not end until long after the game did.

Blackhawks vs Sharks, game 4 - 5/23/10

The Sharks and Blackhawks battled their way through the third period - San Jose trying hard to get at least a point to stay in the series; and Chicago looking to nail the sweep - with the Hawks finally scoring 14:05 into the third (WTG, Big Buff, on another GWG!).

Byfuglien scores winning goal - 5/23/10

You think the Anthem was deafening? With a minute left on the clock, the entire UC crowd was on its feet, roaring, as the Hawks held off any attempts by the Sharks to breathe life back into their game. San Jose called its time out at 49.3 left.

Play resumed, and Kris Versteeg scored a backhand from the middle of the ice on the empty net to make it 4-2.

Blackhawks vs Sharks, game 4 - 5/23/10

People were jumping up and down, screaming, crying, laughing, hugging, singing along to "Chelsea Dagger", and the towels began flying, not just onto the ice but all over the arena. They had to clear the towels (and apparently at least one bra, and some broom heads) off the ice before the game could be finished.

Blackhawks vs Sharks, game 4 - 5/23/10

Blackhawks vs Sharks, game 4 - 5/23/10

Players and fans alike, on their feet for the final minute of play

The final horn sounded and "Chelsea Dagger" once again blared through the building... the Blackhawks were going to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in nearly two decades!

Blackhawks vs Sharks, game 4 - 5/23/10

Blackhawks vs Sharks, game 4 - 5/23/10

It hardly felt real on Sunday afternoon. The euphoria, the excitement... just about everybody stayed to watch the end-of-series handshakes and the presentation of the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl (aka. the Campbell Trophy), which is awarded to the Western Conference playoff champions. The San Jose Sharks might've won the regular season Western Conference standings by a single point; but in the final showdown, the Chicago Blackhawks swept them in four games to determine the ultimate winners in the West.

Blackhawks vs Sharks, game 4 - 5/23/10

Blackhawks vs Sharks, game 4 - 5/23/10

As I basically had to get on the road right after the game, I didn't really have much time to absorb the game and the win, and it's sort of all hitting me now, four days later.

This is a unique experience for me as a sports fan. Although I've going to Red Sox games since I was a kid and consider myself a fan, I never really got swept up in "Pennant fever".

Even the year the Red Sox first won the World Series after their long drought (2004), their playoff run hardly seemed "real". (Bear with me, I won't talk baseball long!) As that final series played out, I happened to be in New Orleans. A bunch of us had just had dinner at NOLA (one of Emeril's restaurants) to celebrate my birthday, and after dessert, we headed down Bourbon Street to find a bar that was playing the Red Sox game. One of my friends, Justin, with me was (is) to Red Sox fandom the way that I am to the Blackhawks, so we were primarily looking for a place for him to watch. I don't think any of us expected the Series to be wrapping up that night; none of us thought the Sox were going to sweep.

After poking our heads in a number of establishments, we finally found a bar playing the game around the time of the 7th-inning-stretch. The Sox were up 3-0, which was the same score they ended up winning the game with.

We laughed, we shouted, there may have been some crying going on. Best birthday present ever, and the reason I no longer believe in sports "curses", especially after the Red Sox won the World Series again three years later. As series MVP Manny Ramirez of the Sox said after game 4, "I don't believe in curses, I believe you make your own destination."

It took a few days for that series to sink in, too. I still have the October 28, 2004, front pages somewhere; the kind of sports joy I hope to see happen in Chicago this spring.