Over their many decades, the Blackhawks have played a few of these win or weep Game 7s. Some were good, others not so hot, and one will live in infamy.
What unfolded at the United Center Wednesday night, at least until the next white-knuckler, shall stoke a fire this entire city feels about this hockey team. Dismissed by certain experts a week ago, the Blackhawks advanced to the Western Conference Final with a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Brent Seabrook’s goal at 3:35 of overtime.
The clock showed 10:02 when he snared a puck freed up after a noble effort along the boards by Dave Bolland, found himself with all sorts of space, and drilled a shot that grazed Niklas Kronwall before it escaped goalie Jimmy Howard’s glove. I think the clock showed 10:02, that is, because the building was shaking.
So did a remarkable best-of-seven series between Original Six adversaries conclude, with an explosive bang and a third straight triumph for the Blackhawks to trump a three-game winning streak by Detroit that had put the favorites in a serious predicament, largely because of their forgettable display here in Game 2.
“Character, there’s a lot of character in this room,” noted Seabrook, an integral part of the Blackhawks’ leadership group. Midway in this series, he sat more than he skated. Head Coach Joel Quenneville was sending a message, and it did not entail saving Seabrook’s energy for heroics to be unveiled later. Then, the veteran defenseman rejoined his familiar sidekick, Duncan Keith, and it coincided with how the tenor of this tournament changed.
The Blackhawks are deeper than Detroit, particularly on the back end. For what it’s worth, their comeback surge of three in a row occurred with only one day off between games. Two of the Red Wings’ wins came after two days off. When their stars and foot soldiers declared themselves, the Blackhawks were better, not that it seemed to affect the Red Wings in the third period Wednesday night. Valtteri Filppula was long gone, hurt after two shifts, but Henrik Zetterberg scored his first of the series early in the session and the Red Wings buzzed Corey Crawford like bees in your front yard.
As if to rehearse spontaneous bedlam, the tense throng of 22,103 erupted late in regulation when Niklas Hjalmarsson shot an arrow past Howard. It was 2-1 for Chicago. Or was it? The trailing referee, Stephen Walkom, spread his arms ominously near the benches where Brandon Saad and Kyle Quincey partook in what was judged to be coincidental minors for roughing. A communal roar turned to anger. And then, the uncertainty of sudden death in an elimination game, when a crazy bounce can destroy months of dreams.
Seabrook joked that when he has all that room and all that time, he usually “screws things up.” But he didn’t. Nor did he sulk when his number wasn’t called quite so often by Coach Q last week.
“I try to be a good teammate,” said Seabrook.
“I’m happy for him,” commented Keith. “He deserves it.”
Wednesday night’s audience was full of celebrities. Scottie Pippen, Peanut Tillman, a penthouse suite stocked with Cubs, another jammed with White Sox. Only a smattering of Detroit fans visited. There were, of course, several hundred in Blackhawk sweaters. Then there was a guy who had a No. 81 Marian Hossa jersey… from the Red Wings. Hmm.
After a scoreless first, Patrick Sharp started a rush and finished it with his seventh playoff goal, ably assisted by Hossa and Michal Handzus. The Red Wings, however, did not wilt, and by the middle of the third, they were tied, 1-1, and Coach Q was calling his time out. The Red Wings stole a Game 7 in Anaheim. They had ideas about replicating that deed. Their charter had flight plans for California. Players were instructed to pack heavy for an extended trip. Instead, the Blackhawks are part of the Fab Four left standing. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston and incumbent Los Angeles are the last four Stanley Cup champions. The Kings arrive for Game 1 here Saturday afternoon.
“We’ll enjoy tonight for a little while,” said Seabrook.
The Blackhawks had played ten of these game 7s in their history, but, as mentioned, one in particular is indelibly fixed in the memories of old-timers. During the 1971 Stanley Cup finals, the Blackhawks took a 2-0 lead in the series games and a 2-0 lead in game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens. Before a screaming room only crowd at the Stadium on a hot evening, the Blackhawks had any number of chances to make the score 2-0, but Montreal’s young goalie, Ken Dryden, was saved by the pipes when he couldn’t make saves himself.
Alas, Les Canadiens rallied to win, 3-2. Mention that game to Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita or Tony Esposito—current Hall of Fame ambassadors who played in that game—and they might walk away from you or quickly change the subject. Hull and Mikita were witnesses to Wednesday night’s thriller. They departed, as did the masses, after watching three hours of ferocity, followed by handshakes among two classy hockey teams.
The Rolling Stones are back on Friday night. Up to them how to top this.