SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Sharks knew that dealing with Dustin Byfuglien's 257-pound frame in front of the net would be a challenge in the Western Conference final.
Byfuglien showed that his shot can be pretty dangerous too.
Byfuglien scored the tiebreaking goal with 6:45 remaining in regulation and rookie Antti Niemi made 44 saves to help the Chicago Blackhawks get off to a fast start for a change this postseason by beating San Jose 2-1 Sunday in the conference final opener.
"I feel like I'm at the top of my game right now," Byfuglien said. "I think there's improvements to be made. Just got to keep working and just getting in front, you know, getting dirty."
Byfuglien did that as usual in the series opener, but also showed other elements of his game. With the score tied at 1 in the third period, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews won an offensive zone faceoff from Joe Thornton. Patrick Kane got the puck off the boards to Byfuglien in the slot.
Byfuglien beat Evgeni Nabokov with big shot from the slot for his fifth goal of the postseason, giving Chicago its first lead of the night.
"He showed he can power it right through the goaltender," Toews said. "It doesn't matter where he is. He's hungry to score goals and we want him to keep playing that way."
Thornton's line with Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley was on the ice for both Chicago goals. Thornton plus-minus rating this postseason fell to minus-8, but coach Todd McLellan had no regrets using his star center for a key defensive zone faceoff against the opposition's top line.
"Joe has been put in that situation all year," McLellan said. "We played our big players against the other team's top lines. They've been very successful. So I feel very comfortable with them on the ice in that situation."
Byfuglien's game-winner was possible because of the brilliant play from Niemi, who is proving that he might no longer be the weak link in Chicago.
Niemi stopped almost everything that came his way in his first career game against the Sharks, helping Chicago kill four of five power plays including a 6-on-4 advantage in the closing minute. That snapped a run of four straight series-opening losses for Chicago.
"He's been good for us all year," forward Kris Versteeg said. "Everyone seemed to be doubting him except us. We're confident in him. We have to give him a lot more help than we did tonight."
Niemi made the lead hold up by stopping a few late scrambles in front of his net. San Jose ended the game on a power play after Versteeg was called for tripping Devin Setoguchi with 54.2 seconds to play.
With Nabokov pulled, the Sharks had a 6-on-4 advantage but were unable to convert on their fifth power play chance. Chicago didn't get a single chance with the man advantage.
Niemi's best moment came at the end of San Jose's fourth power play, when he made a spectacular sprawling save to rob Ryane Clowe at the side of the net on a power play late in the second period.
"I just saw him standing pretty much at the back post with an empty net and I just wanted to get my hand in the way," Niemi said.
The only goal Niemi allowed came to rookie Jason Demers on the power play in the first period. The Sharks fell to 0-4 at home all-time in two trips to the conference final.
"There was some times we thought it was going in, but he did a good job," Sharks forward Joe Pavelski said. "He's going to stop it for the most part. We just have to keep the shots coming."
Patrick Sharp also scored for the Blackhawks, who will try to take a 2-0 series lead on Tuesday night in San Jose. Chicago improved to 6-1 on the road this postseason.
NOTES: Chicago D Brian Campbell was booed each time he touched the puck, a regular occurrence since he left San Jose to sign as a free agent with the Blackhawks before last season. ... The Sharks dressed seven defensemen with Niclas Wallin getting the call for the third time this postseason after being slowed by a lower-body injury.