The numbers 3/5 may have been cause for celebration on Wednesday, but at least in Chicagoland, 33 and 31 should be the main topics of conversation.
Dustin Byfuglien played his most dominant game as a Hawk, Antti Niemi outplayed Roberto Luongo, and the Hawks beat the Canucks 5-2 to take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Semifinals.
This game was won in the first period, when Antti Niemi came up with some of the biggest saves he's made in a Hawks uniform. The Canucks had sixteen shots in the opening frame, and they were stopped on numerous scoring chances by Niemi. He was in a zone from the time the puck dropped, and kept the Canucks off the scoreboard. The Canucks' inability to solve Niemi in the first period undoubtedly had a psychological impact as well.
The best player in this game was Dustin Byfuglien. I wrote before this series about how Buff could take the game over and get into the Canucks' heads like he did last spring, and he answered the call on Wednesday night. He had three goals, six hits, and was flying all over the ice on every shift.
Why does "this" Dustin Byfuglien only show up once every two months or so? I have a theory.
I think that Dustin Byfuglien's compete level depends almost entirely on the role he is asked to play. In the final weeks of the regular season, Buff was asked to move to defense because of several injuries. The team's success was almost completely dependent on his ability to play a steady defensive game in place of the injured players. During those games, Buff played some of his best hockey.
On Wednesday, Buff was moved to the first line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The third wheel on that line has a very important job: Dig pucks out of corners, win individual battles, and provide room for the kids to do their thing. Once again, in an important role, Byfuglien played like an elite player. There were multiple times in Game 3 where he beat several Vancouver players in a puck battle and created a scoring chance. That type of play has been absent from Byfuglien's game for 99% of the season.
It's clear to me that Buff needs to feel important in order to make a difference. If that's what it takes, then do it. Buff earned a spot on the top line at least for Game 4, and probably the rest of the series, considering the opponent. If Byfuglien and the rest of the Hawks continue to find their rhythm, look out.
The Hawks shouldn't get cocky yet, but they have a very good chance to win this series by Sunday night. The Canucks are clearly rattled, as they took cheap shots all night and suffered two game misconducts in the final five minutes that could lead to suspensions for Alex Burrows and Shane O'Brien for Game 4.
Some are speculating that Roberto Luongo is playing through an injury he may have suffered on a Patrick Sharp shot in Game 2. Whether that is true or not, Luongo is not the same goaltender we saw in Game 1. His rebound control was awful in Game 3, and the Hawks capitalized on many second and third chance opportunities.
At least for one night, the Chicago Blackhawks team we got to know back in November has returned. If the Canucks can't find the type of play they showed in Game 1, they're done in five.
-JT (Follow me on Twitter @JTalarico328 for Hawks thoughts, news, and updates)