The St. Louis Blues already had blown a 3-1 series lead, backed into a daunting Game 7, the pressure squarely on their shoulders. They had let a two-goal, first-period lead slip away for the second straight game. They were clinging to a one-goal lead, killing off the final 11 minutes, 29 seconds of the biggest game of their lives as if it were one long power play, desperately clinging on, and to shed their label as playoff chokers.
And then came the Blackhawks. The three-time Stanley Cup champion. The unflappable Blackhawks.
It was a familiar script. The hero moment for Jonathan Toews, or Patrick Kane, or Brent Seabrook. The inevitable Blues meltdown. Another Blackhawks triumph.
But this time, it was a different story.
The Hawks failed to summon one last bit of heroics, and the Blues held on for an excruciatingly tight 3-2 victory — a breathless conclusion to a breathtaking first-round series between two of the best teams in the NHL.
So it’s the Blues — who had been repeating over and over again throughout the series that they were a different team this year — who will face the Dallas Stars in the second round, showing off their newfound resilience and resolve against the league’s most playoff-tested team. And it’s the Hawks, perhaps feeling the weight of an unimaginable amount of hockey in the past 39 months — Game 7 was Niklas Hjalmarsson’s 362 NHL game, and Seabrook’s 361st — who ran out of gas.
“It just doesn’t really feel right,” Kane said.
After three straight years defined by playoff success — an all-time classic conference final sandwiched between two championships — the 2015-16 Hawks season will be remembered merely for regular-season accomplishments. Kane’s 26-game point streak, a record for an American player. Kane’s career season, becoming the first American to win the scoring title. A 12-game win streak. A regular season to remember, followed by an unforgettable playoff series. But that’s all.
The reality was still sinking in moments after the game.
“Disappointment,” Toews said. “You get that feeling that it’s going to be one of those things again. We felt from the get-go this season that we [had] the team to do it again. … People were saying this series looked like it was probably going to come down to one goal at the end, and it did. Just wasn’t in our favor.”
That one goal came from Troy Brouwer — a member of the Hawks’ 2010 championship team that started the Hawks’ run of dominance. After redirecting Robby Fabbri’s pass into the post, Brouwer reached back and cleaned up his own rebound at 8:31 of the third period. That came after the Hawks had rallied from an early 2-0 deficit with a goal by Marian Hossa late in the first, and a power-play goal by Andrew Shaw early in the second.
“It was really eye-opening what a championship team can do when they dial it up,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “You find yourself on the bench just in awe of some of the things they do. We had to find a way to battle through it…You play in a series like this, you see why that team has won three Cups.”
It’ll stay at three, for now at least, as the Hawks head into their first long offseason since the summer of 2012.
A long summer could do the #Blackhawks wonders. They've played a truly absurd amount of hockey since Jan. 2013.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 26, 2016
There will be the usual salary-cap casualties, with Shaw — a fan favorite and playoff hero — the likeliest big-name departure. And there will be time — five months — to reflect, rest, recover from the most remarkable three-year stretch in franchise history.
“This is what we play for — these type of games, and these series, and playing late into the year,” Duncan Keith said. “It’s fun having short summers. Obviously, we’re going to have a longer summer this year."