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Verdi: St. Louis prevails in seven magnificent chapters defined by inches

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

ST. LOUIS—Instead of their dream back-to-back scenario, the Blackhawks will rue a cruel post-to-post denouement. They were down by a goal with about 4 minutes remaining on Monday night when Brent Seabrook propelled a drive that struck iron on either side of Brian Elliott. The puck toddled away, a synonym for this tournament replete with near misses and close calls, seven magnificent chapters defined by inches.

The red light flashed briefly, but referee Francis Charron signaled otherwise, a ruling soon to be validated by video. No goal. No more magic. Handshakes following a series contested in April but worthy of June. The St. Louis Blues prevailed 3-2 in a classic Game 7 of the first Stanley Cup playoff round that belonged later on hockey’s calendar.

So now, only two weeks into what is by many lengths and any measure the most worthwhile postseason in professional sports, the defending champions are gone, as are the Los Angeles Kings, a heavyweight that many experts picked to replace the Blackhawks. Original Six members? All out. Canada’s seven franchises? Never got in. Tough neighborhood.

“It just doesn’t really feel right,” whispered Patrick Kane.

The breakthrough that rattled the roof of the Scottrade Center belonged to Troy Brouwer, who played for the 2010 champion Blackhawks. Acquired from the Washington Capitals during the offseason, Brouwer is a character individual, raved about by Head Coach Ken Hitchcock as a valuable guy in the locker room, at the meal room, on the team bus. That would make Brouwer the same glue guy he was in Chicago.

On the ice Monday night, he stuffed the puck past Corey Crawford, a third effort after it had kissed the post, then eluded his stick altogether. The time was 8:31 of the third period, and all but a few red-clad spectators in the standing-room-only crowd of 19,935 attempted to blow the roof off the building, testimony to the power of exhaling.

But of course, the Blackhawks were not done. They never are until the clock says so. They called timeout with 1:29 remaining, and Corey Crawford, who kept the Blues score from ballooning, vacated his net. With 39.5 seconds left, St. Louis called timeout. Every inch, every possession, every stride screamed urgency. To borrow from Yogi Berra, born many years ago only a few miles away, it wasn’t over until it was over. And when it was, it hurt.

“Huge disappointment for me,” rasped Head Coach Joel Quenneville after the suspense had ended. His remarks were clipped, but he did not allow his distress to smother the obvious—two stellar teams had laid it on the line, gifting fans in both participating markets and neutral observers with a fabulous matchup.

With Kane cavorting all over the ice—33 shifts for 22-plus minutes—surely he would collect or choreograph a tying score to break the hearts of yet another challenger to the Blackhawks throne. Or maybe Jonathan Toews. Or Seabrook. But, on this night anyway, it never happened. After a clean, hard game featuring just three minor penalties, the boys of winter lined up for the ritual. Half of them going home, half of them going to Dallas.

Perhaps mistaking this evening as another 8:42 p.m. start, the Blackhawks fell behind 2-0 by the 14th minute. At one point, the shots were 9-4 for St. Louis. But the defending champions warmed to the task and took the next 12 shots. They also tied the score on the only power play over the first two periods. Andrew Shaw, lingering along the extended goal line to Elliott’s right, flung the puck on net. Jay Bouwmeester was crouching just in front and the puck struck him, then took a right-angle turn through the blue paint, and Elliott.

Crawford kept it 2-2 by robbing Robby Fabbri with a stick-hand block, then observing thankfully as Alex Pietrangelo squandered a chance at a yawning net. Then Crawford stoned Fabbri again. Then Jaden Schwartz. Then Vladimir Tarasenko. Then Alexander Steen, about to feast on a lot of twine, misfired. The Blues, dealing with all their demons and curses and goblins, were now shooting blanks against a veteran, decorated goalie in Crawford. Across the way, Elliott was rejecting pucks. He was also yielding rebounds.

“But it wasn’t meant to be,” groused Toews after his 124th playoff game.

The Blues took off flying, and scoring. Bouwmeester fired from afar, Jori Lehtera tipped it, and the Blackhawks were trailing by one after one minute. Patrik Berglund was stopped on a good look at Crawford, then Scottie Upshall dinged the post to Crawford’s right. After the Blackhawks failed to clear, Colton Parayko crushed a puck from just inside the blue line and it escaped Crawford. St. Louis 2-0 at 13:43.

Speaking of missiles, Hossa nailed a shot past Elliott at 18:30, not long after Elliott made a nice glove save on Kane. Hossa, the future Hall of Famer, was in his 10th Game 7 of a marvelous career.

Although the Blackhawks have played the mother lode of postseason games under Quenneville, only five have been Game 7s. The Blackhawks were 2-2 previously: winning against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2013 conference semifinals and the Anaheim Ducks in the 2015 conference final. The other two losses were to the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 conference quarterfinals and Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 conference final. In all three years when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, they took care of business in the Final in six games.

For all their playoff tiffs—this is the 12th series between Chicago and St. Louis—only once before did they reach a Game 7. That was in 1990, when the Blackhawks roasted the Blues 8-2 in the Division Finals. Even when their series were best of five, which happened twice, they never went to a Game 5.

There is another slice of history for the Blackhawks in St. Louis, because they once had a farm club here. The Braves existed in the Central League for a short spell from 1963 to 1967, during which some big names played on their way to Chicago.

Lou Angotti, Denis DeJordy, Dave Dryden, Phil Esposito, Dennis Hull, Doug Jarrett, Wayne Hillman, Fred Stanfield and Pat Stapleton were Braves before they were Blackhawks. When St. Louis was granted an NHL franchise, the Braves moved to Dallas and became the Dallas Black Hawks.

Now, in a city haunted by the Blackhawks, a younger alumni, Brouwer, put them away. But three Stanley Cups in seven years is still remarkable, and four in eight is still in play.

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