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Blackhawks await a finals foe

CHICAGO - Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were mere toddlers in 1992, the last time Chicago appeared in the Stanley Cup finals.

CHICAGO - Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were mere toddlers in 1992, the last time Chicago appeared in the Stanley Cup finals.

And it's now been been nearly a half century since Chicago last toasted a Stanley Cup champion.

But generations of Cup-starved Hawks fans were at least partly rewarded yesterday, when Chicago completed a sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference finals with a 4-2 victory.

The Blackhawks rallied from a 2-0 deficit on goals by Brent Seabrook and Dave Bolland. And winger Dustin Byfuglien collected his second straight game-winning goal in the third period to put Chicago ahead for good.

The Blackhawks, who haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1961, will meet either the Flyers (last Cup, 1975) or Canadiens (1993) in the finals. The Flyers can advance by beating Montreal tonight at the Wachovia Center.

Chicago advanced to the Western finals last year before losing to Detroit.

"Last year, we felt we were very close, but just didn't have enough in us. We were young,'' said Toews, who has seven goals and a team-high 19 assists in the postseason. "To us, there's no surprise that we're back here. You know, we're excited about winning this series, whether it was in four games or seven games. Doesn't really matter how you do it. You want to find a way. That's what we did.''

Kane, who also has seven postseason goals plus 13 assists, said he's content to wait and see who comes out of the East.

"It's not Philly yet,'' he said. "We'll just wait to see what happens. Both teams are really good to have gotten this far. We'll watch [tonight] and watch further if it goes on.''

The experience also will be new for Hawks coach Joel Quenne-ville, who has coached three teams over 13 seasons but never has reached the finals.

"I think getting to this stage was a great accomplishment, not easy to do,'' he said. "We should be proud of where we're at. I just think it creates a greater appetite for what it's all about.''

Chicago dispatched Nashville in a six-game opening-round series, rallying from a 2-1 deficit with three straight victories. The Western Conference semifinals against Vancouver also went six games as the Blackhawks clinched the series with a 5-1 victory earlier this month in Canada.

While the Blackhawks may be NHL royalty as an Original Six franchise, only three Stanley Cup banners hang from the United Center rafters (1934, 1938 and 1961).

After the last Cup appearance, the franchise sunk into a period of irrelevancy with losing teams, declining attendance and sagging interest. The Hawks hit a nadir in 2004 when ESPN called them the worst franchise in professional sports.

A minor league hockey team - the AHL Chicago Wolves - successfully competed for fans. And when the league canceled the 2004-05 season, many fans in Chicago simply shrugged.

But top draft picks like Toews and Kane, savvy trades and finally a reinvigorated ownership reversed the slide and led to a revival at "The Madhouse on Madison.''

This season, the Hawks posted a 52-22-8 regular-season record and franchise-record 112 points, just a point behind San Jose.

The Blackhawks led the NHL in average attendance (21,356) and are closing in on 100 consecutive United Center sellouts. Local TV ratings have soared, including a record 11.52 rating and more than 400,000 viewers during last Friday's 3-2, overtime victory over the Sharks.

The Blackhawks plan to keep right on rolling.

"Sky's the limit,'' Toews said. "This is a great opportunity, a great chance. You know, nothing's holding us back. We're going to go right after it, enjoy doing it as a team. Doing it for each other. Firing on all cylinders. No reason we can't go out there and get another four wins.''