Post. Whiff. Fall. Goal.
Troy Brouwer's third-period tally might have been the ugliest goal of the playoffs, but his try, try again effort made all the difference as the St. Louis Blues downed the Chicago Blackhawks 3–2 in Game 7 on Monday.
With the win, the Blues move on to Dallas to face the Stars in the Western Conference semifinals. Expect the date and time to be announced midweek.
Here are three thoughts on this Stanley Cup Final-worthy thriller:
This year, it's different
There's no overstating the importance of this win to the Blues. St. Louis had been eliminated in the opening round in each of the past three seasons. If the Blues had dropped the final three games of this series to run the streak to four, it would have triggered seismic organizational changes.
Instead, they found a way. They got out to a fast start, weathered the storm when Chicago bounced back with another strong second period, then traded punches in a heart-pounding third period that went down to the final buzzer.
“None of it has been easy," Blues captain David Backes told reporters. "We’ve had to sacrifice and those lessons have been learned the hard way in the past couple of years. Now we’re putting them to good use and we have lot of guys in this group buying in and doing the right things.”
And this is just the beginning. By knocking off the defending champs, the Blues established themselves, along with the San Jose Sharks, as the team to beat coming out of the West. And while they have a long way to go, they have to like their chances. They received terrific goaltending from Brian Elliott (what a stop he made on Artem Anisimov late), a stout defensive effort led by Alex Pietrangelo and they found a way to score against one of the best goalies in the world.
"We have knowledge now of what it takes and now we've got to use it," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We have an opportunity in front of us. I'm sure everybody in that room knows it's going to get harder. But we have knowledge and it's the emotional knowledge of how deep you have to dig. We found that in this series. I want us to use it now."
Bring on the Stars.
Take a bow, Blues
So many heroes in this one for the Blues.
This was a star-making performance from rookie defenseman Colton Parayko, who scored St. Louis’s second goal on an absolute howitzer from the point at 13:43 of the first period and was the picture of poise in his own end.
Freshman forward Robby Fabbri made a beautiful pass to set up Brouwer's winner, and was his team's most consistent offensive threat. He ended up with three shots on net and every one of them demanded a special save by Corey Crawford.
Paul Stastny had his finest game of the series, moving the puck effectively and winning 76% of his draws including a crucial defensive zone drop with the Hawks pressing for the equalizer.
Forward Scottie Upshall landed a game-high seven hits and made life miserable for Chicago's defenders with his relentless forecheck.
And then there was Brouwer, playing in his seventh career Game 7 and finally recording his first goal of the series. It would have been prettier if his initial attempt hadn't hit the post, or if he hadn't fanned on his first backhand attempt, or fallen down as he took his third whack. But he made just enough contact on that last swipe to get it past Crawford for the decisive score. A fitting reward for another player who, like Upshall, sacrificed his body all game long in an effort to wear down Chicago's defense.
Hitchcock will have to answer some questions about his miserly usage of star forward Vladimir Tarasenko, but it's hard to be critical of a man who just got the drop on his Chicago counterpart Joel Quenneville. He wisely reworked his lines (Stastny, Fabbri and Brouwer ended up being his most effective unit) and worked his match-ups flawlessly. Most important, he held the Blues together after they blew another early 2–0 lead.
Now that they're over that mental hurdle, anything seems possible. Even the Stanley Cup.
No shame for Chicago
This was a high stakes moment for the Hawks as well. A win would have kept alive the dream of becoming the first repeat champs in the salary cap era and given them a shot at their fourth Cup since 2010.
But there was no shame in falling short on Monday night. The Hawks played 60 minutes of big-boy hockey against an outstanding opponent, falling just short in the final minutes when Brent Seabrook's bullet from the point beat Elliott but skittered harmlessly away. It was that close.
In the end though, they were undone exactly as everyone thought they would be: by their lack of depth on the blue line. Erik Gustafsson, a player who was forced into NHL minutes too soon by the off-season loss of Johnny Oduya, suffered a mental meltdown on the Brouwer goal. His indecision in the neutral zone led to the puck being stripped away and carried in on the attack. He then compounded his mistake by failing to handle up on Brouwer, allowing the Blues winger to take multiple whacks before burying the clincher.
It was a hard-luck loss for Crawford, who bailed his team out repeatedly and reaffirmed his place as one of the very best in the game. And it was unfortunate that Patrick Kane wasn't rewarded on a night when he played with a single-minded determination that made every shift a thrill to watch. But the Hawks can hold their heads high. They went down swinging.