By Allan Muir
Brent Seabrook opened the Chicago-Detroit series in coach Joel Quenneville’s doghouse.
He ended it covered in glory.
The blueliner scored the biggest goal of his career 3:35 into overtime to lift the Blackhawks to a 2-1 win over the Red Wings and send Chicago on to the Western Conference Finals against the defending champion Los Angeles Kings.
“I felt like I had a lot of room,” Seabrook told NBC Sports Network. “I just tried to shoot it.”
He wasn’t the only Blackhawk who was struggling as the Wings built up a 3-1 series lead, but Seabrook had clearly lost the trust of the coaching staff. By Game 4, he’d been reduced to just 12 minutes of playing time, by far a season low. But with their season on the line, he was reunited with partner Duncan Keith on the top pairing and quickly responded to the challenge of playing smarter hockey.
Seabrook remembered what Quenneville had told him about jumping up into the play at the right time. After a crushing hit by Dave Bolland on Gustav Nyquist early in OT left the puck at his feet with an open lane to the net, Seabrook skated into the Red Wings’ zone and threw a wrister toward Jimmy Howard. The shot deflected off the stick of Niklas Kronwall and sailed into the top corner, sending the United Center into a joyous frenzy.
“I know Kronwall, he likes to block pucks just like I do, and my main goal was just try to get it past him,” Seabrook said. “Luckily it went in.”
The goal ended a thrilling Game 7 that saw the two teams trade chances in a furious first period, setting a raggedly fast pace that rarely let up until Seabrook’s goal sent the strains of “Chelsea Dagger” wafting through the rink one last time in the series.
Here are some thoughts and observations on a contest that easily could have gone down much differently:
• The best part about Chicago’s win? The lede of this story didn’t have to mention referee Stephen Walkom and a call that would have gone down as one of the most controversial in history if not for Seabrook rendering it all but irrelevant.
Walkom, the former director of officiating for the NHL and now a ref regarded as one of the best in the game, was trailing the play with just under two minutes remaining in the game. As Andrew Shaw carried the puck deep into Detroit’s end, Walkom focused on a scrum in front of the Wings’ bench that saw Brandon Saad and Kyle Quincey tangle up and fall to the ice. While Walkom was readying to blow the whistle and call coincidental minors, Shaw spotted Niklas Hjalmarsson trailing the play and put the puck on his tape. The big defender wound up at the top of the left circle and hammered one past Howard for the apparent go-ahead goal with just 1:47 on the clock.
But as Chicago celebrated, Walkom immediately signaled no goal because of the penalties.
This wasn’t a bad call. It was indefensible. At that point in a game in which anything short of a shiv to the ribs was being overlooked in the spirit of “letting the boys play,” Walkom pulled out the whistle for an incident that maybe could have sent Quincey to the box. Saad? No way. The only thing he roughed up was the ice in front of Detroit’s bench when he landed on it.
But it wasn’t just that he thought these guys needed to be penalized. The bigger problem, though, was that Walkom displayed no awareness of the rush that was in progress just 50 feet away. That’s inexcusable for someone with his experience, especially in that situation.
During a spring that’s seen some brutal officiating, this one will go down as the most clueless call of the playoffs.
• Just 20 teams in NHL history had come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. The Hawks made a worthy 21. They hadn’t faced a lot of adversity in the regular season, but still managed a champion’s response when the Wings knocked them down to the mat in Game 4. They tightened up on the back end, taking control of the middle of the ice and decreasing the number of prime chances the Wings were able to land on Corey Crawford. They increased their own physical presence at the other end, taking advantage of — or maybe forcing — some shaky play from Detroit’s young lineup. And most important, their top players refused to let their teammates down. Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp led the way, just like top players are supposed to.
• The Hawks needed more out of their bottom six tonight, and the grinders delivered. The fourth line of Viktor Stalberg, Andrew Shaw and Saad in particular gave Detroit’s defenders fits with their aggressive forecheck, and they generated some of Chicago’s best scoring chances along the way. Stalberg led all skaters with six shots despite playing just over 10 minutes. He tested Howard with a tough redirect in the first, and then again with a wrist shot from in close in the second before combining with Shaw on a dangerous two-on-one opportunity.
The line combined for 10 shots, five hits and probably 10 minutes in the Detroit zone. Shaw also delivered the slew foot (uncalled) that knocked Valtteri Filppula out of the game in the first period and forced the Wings to jerry-rig their lines the rest of the night. No quantifying the impact that had on the outcome, but it sure didn’t hurt Chicago’s chances.
• After another brilliant performance under the most unforgiving circumstances, Crawford is one step closer to redemption for last season’s playoff meltdown. It never felt like he was the difference-maker in the series, but he played at a consistently high level, especially over the final four games when he allowed just six goals on 117 shots. That’s a Quick-like .949 save percentage. More importantly, he made every stop he should have made, and several that went above and beyond. At this point, his teammates believe he can take them all the way. And they should.
• The Kings have to be licking their chops at the thought of facing Johnny Oduya in the conference final. The veteran played the third period like he had $50 riding on the Wings, coughing up the puck multiple times in his own zone and looking wildly uncomfortable any time he was under pressure. If he was sagging under the weight of this series, just wait until he faces Los Angeles and their heavy forecheck. Look for him to be a prime target of the Kings’ big bangers.
• Henrik Zetterberg scored Detroit’s only goal of the night, a nifty mid-air conversion off a Nyquist cross-crease pass that Crawford had no chance on, but it was too little, too late from the captain. He wasn’t good enough tonight or in the series. Neither were Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. The Wings needed their star players to step up and only Howard responded, stopping 33 of 35 Chicago shots as he took another tough-luck loss. The Big Three? Each could manage only a single goal over seven games.
Maybe if they’d stepped up tonight it wouldn’t have mattered that the Wings were too sloppy in their own zone, struggled in transition and, for some reason, refused to drive the net as relentlessly as they had in previous games against the Hawks. But they didn’t. They kept looking for pretty when the answer was ugly, and it cost them.
This is a team in transition, and it’s still a few pieces away from returning to the ranks of serious contenders. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: if the Hawks don’t re-sign unrestricted free agent Bryan Bickell this summer, Detroit better be first in line with a contract offer in hand on July 5. He’s exactly the sort of presence they were missing in this series.
• Two beautiful moments after it was all over. The first saw Howard skate over to Kronwall, who was down on one knee and obviously blaming himself for the winning goal, and wrap his arm around the defender. We may never know what was said, but the gesture spoke volumes. Then there was Zetterberg, the ultimate sportsman as he went through the handshake line. Some guys offer up a pat and a “good game.” Not Zetterberg. Every Blackhawk got a genuine handshake and several words of congratulations from the captain, who carried the mantle of leadership even after the bitter end.