CHICAGO -- Count the Blackhawks among those who think they will ultimately have to conquer their arch rival to bring the Stanley Cup back to Chicago.
It's no guarantee the Hawks and Detroit Red Wings will even meet in the Western Conference playoffs, but Sunday's regular-season finale between the two at the United Center did nothing to make the possibility seem any less probable.
Detroit ended Chicago's bid to be the conference's No. 1 seed with a 3-2 overtime victory that sent most of the 22,428 fans home grumpy and cost the Hawks the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart took a well-placed pass by Dan Cleary and beat Antti Niemi 3:11 into overtime to win a tightly-contested game between two of the League's oldest, most bitter rivals.
"It was a little bit like a playoff atmosphere, but overall it was just a good win to end the season," said Stuart, who scored his fourth goal of the season. "I saw three Chicago players (go after) Cleary and he just made a great pass. I was left open. Once I got it, I kept thinking, ‘Just don't miss.'"
Niemi stopped 18 of 21 shots, while Detroit rookie Jimmy Howard stopped 27 of 29 on his way to winning first-star honors. He helped stave off a late power play with the game tied 2-2 in the third and made several stops from point-blank range against some of Chicago's top goal-scorers.
The No. 5 seeded Wings will now face No. 4 Phoenix in the first round, while No.2 Chicago – which finished with a team record 112 points -- will play Nashville. If the Hawks had won, they would have tied San Jose at 113 points and gotten the No. 1 spot on a tie-breaker. A bigger topic of debate, though, was a potential rematch between the Wings and Hawks in the later rounds.
Detroit ended Chicago's season in the conference finals a year ago, and many think it will come down to those two yet again.
"I'm sure it will happen," said Chicago forward Patrick Kane, who assisted on the Hawks' first goal by Dave Bolland. "That's the way you want it. You want to beat the best to be the best. They're a great team and they've got everyone healthy (now). They're definitely a force to be reckoned with until somebody beats 'em."
Doing that is proving to be something easier said than done since the Olympics. Detroit finished the season 16-3-2 in March and April combined, and is steamrolling into the playoffs. The star players who were hurt are back from their various injuries and Howard continues to impress in the net.
Howard couldn't do much about the Hawks' second goal, though. It bounced in off the skate of Hawks fourth-line center Colin Fraser to tie the game 2-2 with 9:16 left in the third. The goal was allowed after a review and brought the home fans back to life.
Hawks fans had gone quiet just a few minutes earlier after Tomas Holmstrom deflected a shot by Brian Rafalski past Niemi for a brief 2-1 Detroit lead. Fraser's goal was his fifth in the last four games and set up a dramatic end to regulation that saw the Wings kill off a late Chicago power play to force OT.
In the first period, Bolland got the scoring started 11 seconds into a late power play by jabbing at a loose puck in the crease. Detroit then tied it 1-1 just 5:01 into the second on a goal by Patrick Eaves, who flicked in his 12th goal of the season off a rebound of Cleary's shot from the right side.
Technically, there might have been more on the line for the Hawks in this game, but the Wings also played like it meant a lot to them.
"Once you get out there, you don't want to lose," Howard said. "We wanted this game. We wanted to go into the playoffs on a good note."
They also sent a message to the Hawks and other Western Conference teams who wish to be king. Detroit might've been down this season, but the Wings are not exactly road kill on the path to the Stanley Cup just yet.
"We can learn a lot from those guys," Fraser said of the Wings. "They have a lot of vets over there and they know what it takes to win."