Hawks pounce on McLellan's gamble

Dustin Byfuglien gave the Hawks the lead for good late in the third period. Jason O. Watson/US Presswire

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Now that was some playoff hockey.

Game 1 lived up to the week-long hype as the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks showed off their rested legs. If not for a mistake by Sharks coach Todd McLellan, the game might still be going on, though he insisted it was the right thing to do.

He left Joe Thornton and his wingers on the ice as Joel Quenneville sent out Jonathan Toews and Co. for an offensive zone face off. It was 1-1 late in the third period. That’s not the time to take a chance with a matchup. McLellan did and lost.

Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley are dynamic in the offensive zone, but set them up in front of their own goaltender, and problems are bound to happen -- in fact they have in this postseason.

They’re all minus players through two rounds, including Thornton, who was minus-6, going into Game 1. He’s minus-8 now, having been on the ice for both Hawk goals. That’s the worst number on the team and this from a guy most are saying is playing his best playoff hockey.

If you watch the replay, they were slow to react all over the ice. In the corner and boards, near Patrick Kane, and then out where Dustin Byfuglien set up. It didn’t hurt that Toews tied up two Sharks for a split second as well.

There’s a reason “playing the percentages” has meaning in sports and McLellan went against them. If he continues to do so, the Hawks can take advantage of “Jumbo” Joe in his own zone.

On the Hawks' first goal, that Sharks line could not backcheck in time and with the speed and numbers the Hawks had going into the offensive zone, the advantage went to the visitors, and Patrick Sharp finished a great rush.

None of it matters if not for Antti Niemi. What more can you say about this guy? He’s come out of nowhere to prove he belongs with the big boys. He never really had a breather. Evgeni Nabokov sure did, during the five power-play attempts by his team. He didn’t have to face even one by the Hawks. It’s amazing they got to 40 shots without any coming with the man advantage.

Don’t be too mad at the refs. Yes, they could have put their whistles away on a couple they called on the Hawks -- such as the Byfgulien interference that led to the Sharks’ only goal -- but it’s not like San Jose got away with murder. They played clean and still came up short.

And so you have to wonder how the Sharks feel right now. They gave the Hawks their near best and still lost. The glass-half-full attitude says keep it up and things will go your way. Glass half empty? The Hawks won’t allow 45 shots every night, and the Sharks won’t go penalty-less, so the chance to win a game was there and it didn’t happen.

And there better not be any crying from Sharks fans that the refs put the wrong guy in the penalty box at the end of the game. Big deal. As Quenneville put it, Marian Hossa and Toews can kill penalties, too. It was a small mistake in an otherwise wonderful game.

The spotlight is on the Hawks, both literally and figuratively. After the game, it was a strange sight, seeing the odd couple of Niemi and Byfuglien, on stage with bright lights shining on them, answering media questions.

The two unassuming stars of this playoff run don’t have many answers for their great play. That’s OK, their play is speaking for itself.

Overall, it was a great Game 1 and fastening your seatbelts for the rest of the series is probably good advice. It took a while for the Hawks to get going but once they did -- despite the power-play disadvantages -- they began to wear down the Sharks. As long as they stay in games early, it should happen throughout the series. Twenty-five percent of the way to the Finals and the Hawks are sitting pretty with their first series opening win since the first round of 2009.