CHICAGO – In the closing moments of “Rocky,” the gutsy fighter and his slick rival clench together at the bell, their epic battle now complete.
“Ain’t gonna be no rematch,” one gasps.
“Don’t want one,” gasps the other.
This fight is over. The Blackhawks win Game 7, in overtime, in gut-wrenching fashion, final score, 2-1, on a goal by Brent Seabrook that just grazed Nicklas Kronwall’s foot and flew past Jimmy Howard.
“I didn’t have time to think,” said a dejected Kronwall in the Wings’ locker room Wednesday night. “I knew right away it went off of me.”
Fight over. Ain’t gonna be no rematch, because the sands are shifting, Detroit will be in the Eastern Conference next year, and the only way it will face Chicago again in the playoffs is if the Stanley Cup itself hangs in the balance.
That’s OK. It’ll take Detroit fans a while to recover from this one. So close. Three chances to advance. And the season ends in overtime – just under four minutes in. The two teams who have faced each other more than any pair in NHL history waved a nasty playoff farewell at the United Center on Wednesday night, on a warm, pre-summer evening that was full of bad blood, untimely injury, and – from a Red Wings point of view – one too many goals in the Detroit nets.
“Proud and disappointed,” Daniel Cleary said when asked to sum up the game and the series. “Proud and disappointed.”
Fight over. Season done. It began slipping away when Andrew Shaw, a 21-year-old rookie annoyance, hurled Valtteri Filppula to the ice early in the game and put him out for the night, causing the Wings to shuffle everything.
It continued slipping away when former Wing Marian Hossa slid a perfect pass to a charging Patrick Sharp on a three-on-one break, and Sharp lifted a hard shot past Howard for a 1-0 lead in the second period.
Storm clouds gathered when, with less than two minutes to go in regulation, Niklas Hjalmarsson scored an apparent game-winner that was waved off because an official blew a whistle for – get this -coincidental minor penalties.
And it was finished when Seabrook flittered the puck off Kronwall and past Howard, and the goalie skated out of his crease, head down.
Fight over. Season done. But before you scream, “The Wings blew this series!” give a nod to these Chicago men. Only 20 teams in NHL history have ever come back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win a playoff series. But if any team made a good candidate, it was the Blackhawks: explosive, deep, talent-heavy and not easily shaken, they bounced off the canvas after Game 4 and began a comeback that relied on sharp skating, tightened goaltending, and the shifting fortunes of stars like Hossa and Jonathan Toews, who came on strong in the three closing wins.
A night to remember
“We think we’ve got a good team, we think we’ve got a heck of a chance,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said of Game 7 Tuesday evening. And he was right. The Wings had a heck of a chance. What will now and forever be debated is why that chance was not capitalized upon one or two games earlier.
Because Game 7s are crapshoots, always have been. The time to close out an opponent is when you have you foot on his throat. “Kill the snake,” Bill Laimbeer used to intone in the Pistons days, once even bringing in a sharp object to illustrate the point.
But those were veteran Pistons teams, and this was a mostly young Red Wings group in transition. So here was the seventh time in the last two weeks that these two teams have squared off, and it looked as if they were pretty sick of each other. There was more shoving, wrestling, rabbit punching and face-wiping Wednesday than in the last three meetings combined. Maybe they wanted to give each other something to remember them by. But long after the bumps and bruises are gone, here is some of what will replay in the Wings’ minds:
Pavel Datsyuk, with no shots in the first two periods.
Justin Abdelkader rolling one onto Crawford in the second, Johan Franzen just behind it. Denied.
Cory Emmerton getting two point-blank chances at Crawford. Denied.
Filppula flipped in the air right in front of the Wings’ bench, Shaw skating away, no one aware that they had just lost a forward.
A little thing here. A little thing there. The Wings played gamely, they gave a good battle. But they couldn’t get past Crawford when they most needed to.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Kronwall said. “I think you have to be a part of sports to understand (what this feels like.) You win, you advance. You lose, the season’s over. It’s tough to put into words. We came up short.”
There are explanations for what happened, but that’s all they should be. Explanations. Not blame. You certainly can’t fault Howard, who for much of these playoffs was like the mature kid giving all the correct answers while his younger classmates dropped their pencils or forgot their homework. Howard did not give up a soft goal in this series. He had a couple of one-goal games and a shutout in Game 5. He got in the Blackhawks’ heads. He remained unflappable throughout.
And you can’t blame the young defensemen or the rookie forwards. Yes, they made mistakes. But they also made great contributions. The leading goal-scorer for the Wings this series was Damien Brunner, the 27-year-old virtual rookie.
“Our young ÃÂD’ has been fantastic in this series, way beyond what I expected,” Babcock said before Game 7. “I think they’re beyond their years. Do they make mistakes? Yeah. When they make mistakes and they don’t go in, we don’t notice them. When they make mistakes, and they go in, we notice them.”
End of the line
After the Game 5 defeat, and again after the Game 6 one, Babcock chose to look at the glass as half full. That will be harder this morning. A glorious chance was missed in this series. And while many feel the Wings were lucky to get this far, the flip side of that is when you do get this far, you should only think about getting farther. The Wings, in Game 6, were one period away from advancing to the Western Conference finals. And today they are home for the summer.
“The last game we can look at it like that (that we blew a chance),” Babcock said Tuesday, “but if we take that attitude, we can go home. So what were gonna do, were gonna choose to go in here and play our best game and win the series. We think that’s the best way to do it.”
And it would have been.
It just wasn’t.
Questions remain for the Wings. What will they do with Filppula, who, as an unrestricted free agent, didn’t do himself any favors with a largely ineffective postseason – and Cleary and Brunner, all of whom can sign where they want.
But for the most part, the growing pains the Wings suffered this year should pay off with new heights in the season to come. Kids like Nyquist and Smith gained invaluable ice time, and with a healthier lineup, the fall looks promising.
But that is for later. For now, we tip a hat to a team that almost made it.
“We were close to moving on,” said a disappointed Howard. “It wasn’t meant to be.”
The smoke fades, and in the clearing, we’ll call the series this way: Chicago drew first blood, Detroit won three straight, Chicago won three straight – the last one going to overtime. Not the way it usually happens. But might as well go out with style.
No more first or second rounds. No more clawing through one another to reach the finals.
Fight over. With the playing ghosts of Hull and Howe, Mikita and Lindsay, Yzerman and Savard nodding from above, the two teams skated past each other and shook hands, and the rivalry as we’ve known it – and this last entertaining series – was history.
Ain’t gonna be no rematch. And that’s fitting. This one stands on its own.