CHICAGO — The whistle blew, but few heard it.
Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson had fired the puck into the net Wednesday night, and it looked like the Chicago Blackhawks had pulled ahead of the Detroit Red Wings, 2-1, with 1:47 left in the third period of Game 7. It looked like they were 107 seconds from the Western Conference final. “Chelsea Dagger” played. The fans celebrated. The United Center shook.
Except the whistle blew, and after a moment, everyone realized it.
Penalty call. No goal.
Hjalmarsson said he “went blank” because he was “so mad.” Captain Jonathan Toews said there was “violent emotion” on the Blackhawks’ bench and he couldn’t repeat what came out of his mouth.
“To be honest,” said defenseman Brent Seabrook, “we thought it should have been game over and series over.”
Eventually, it was game over, series over. Seabrook ended up scoring 3:35 into overtime when his wicked wrist shot glanced off the shinpad of Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall and into the net. This time, there was no whistle. This time, the goal counted. This time, it really was Chicago 2, Detroit 1.
[Watch: Niklas Hjalmarsson's Game 7 'winner' waved off due to penalty call]
Still, this was a test for the Blackhawks – a gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking test that will be part of the lore if they go on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Blackhawks were never tested in the regular season. They didn’t lose in regulation in their first 24 games, an NHL record, and won the Presidents’ Trophy for posting 77 points, No. 1 in the league. They weren’t really tested in the first round of the playoffs, beating the Minnesota Wild in five games. They beat the Wings in Game 1 of the second round, 4-1.
Then they lost three games in a row for the first time all year, and they were shut out for the first time all year in Game 4. The second-best offense in the NHL could not crack goaltender Jimmy Howard.
“When you’re down 3-1,” said defenseman Duncan Keith, “the odds are against you.”
After a dominant victory in Game 5 at home, the Blackhawks found themselves trailing by a goal entering the third period of Game 6 on the road. They took advantage of two defensive mistakes by Wings rookie Brendan Smith and a penalty shot, and they eked out a 4-3 victory.
Now this. Game 7. The first Game 7 between these old Norris and Central Division rivals since 1965, when Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were players at Chicago Stadium and not retirees with statues outside United Center. One last tussle before the Wings head east next season in realignment.
The Blackhawks took a 1-0 lead in the second period; the Wings tied it early in the third. The ’Hawks looked tense; the Wings looked loose. As the seconds ticked down, the game was getting to the point where one play would decide it – whether it was a great play, a bad play, a freak play or a bad call.
As Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad played the puck into the Detroit zone, Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey shoved him into the Detroit bench. Saad wrapped an arm around Quincey’s helmet, and Quincey threw Saad to the ice.
Referee Stephen Walkom, once the NHL’s director of officiating, skated behind the play with a view of the action in front of him. He blew his whistle to call coincidental roughing minors on Quincey and Saad about the time Hjalmarsson wound up to shoot.
“You don’t know what’s going on behind you, so you just try and engage with the guy,” Quincey said. “It was getting to the point where he called the penalty. He had to call the penalty, I guess. We were going back and forth. I guess it worked in our favor there.”
That’s an understatement.
“Buffalo Wild Wings at it again!!!” tweeted Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak, referring to the TV commercial in which the restaurant fixes games so they can last longer and patrons can hang out more.
There is no question Walkom blew his whistle before Hjalmarsson scored, and there is no question that nullified the goal. The question is why Walkom blew his whistle at all (and why the officiating has been so suspect throughout these playoffs). What did Saad do to deserve a penalty? Why wasn’t it a delayed call on Detroit? Why wasn’t play allowed to proceed?
“I just grabbed onto the guy so I didn’t fall into the bench,” Saad said. “I was shocked when the linesman told me I was going to the box.”
[Watch: Brent Seabrook delivers in Game 7 OT to send 'Hawks to West final]
Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser tweeted that Saad’s “weak” glove back at Quincey “did not equate as a coincidental minor. Play should have been allowed [to] continue.”
“We were pretty upset,” Seabrook said. “I was right behind Hammer, so I didn’t even see what happened. But it sucks when a goal like that with that much time left gets called back.”
The Wings showed something despite blowing a 3-1 lead in this series. They weren’t necessarily supposed to make the playoffs this season after losing all-time great Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement. They won their final four games and made the playoffs, anyway. They upset the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in seven games and took the top-seeded Blackhawks to overtime of a seventh game. Refusing to fade away, the Wings showed they still have a future.
But they didn’t get the next goal. Seabrook did.
“Bullet dodged!” Fraser tweeted.
Apparently he was referring to Walkom. But he could have been referring to the Blackhawks.
“Sometimes your heart kind of sinks a little bit and you tend to sit back on your heels,” Toews said. “We keep saying, ‘Bounce back. Don’t worry about it. Take a deep breath. Keep working.’ That’s what we were going to do there. We didn’t let that bother us. We didn’t think about what could have been. We just knew that we needed to score another one.”
Because they did, they not only advanced to play the Los Angeles Kings, the defending Stanley Cup champions. They gained the feeling that they can beat anybody, at any time, no matter what happens.
“It’s not the way you want to win a series, going down three games to one and having to come back like that,” Toews said. “But you do what you’ve got to do, and we dug deep and found a way. To come out on top given the situation we were in three games ago, it’s pretty amazing. It just goes to show the character we have, on top of the ability and the potential this team has.
“So looking forward, we need to use that ability and use that confidence that winning a series like this give us. Regardless of the situation, we keep our eyes on the long-term result that we want, and we keep pushing through every moment. It’s never over until it’s over, and we proved that in this series.”
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