CHICAGO - The Chicago Blackhawks could have folded when they dropped three of the first four games of their series against the Detroit Red Wings. They could have packed it in when a potential go-ahead goal was waved off late in the third period.
They never did. They just kept coming.
Brent Seabrook sent a wrist shot over Jimmy Howard's glove 3:35 into overtime, and Chicago completed an improbable comeback with a 2-1 victory over Detroit in Game 7 of its second-round playoff series on Wednesday night.
"We dug really deep," captain Jonathan Toews said. "We came in here and asked ourselves a question: How bad we wanted it. You got your answer right there. That's a heck of a way to pull out four wins in seven games."
The Blackhawks, who had the best record in the NHL regular season, rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to reach the Western Conference finals against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
For just the second time in NHL history, the final four teams remaining in the playoffs are the four most recent Stanley Cup winners. Chicago captured the Cup in 2010.
Seabrook picked up a loose puck and skated in on Howard through the middle of the ice, with Detroit defenceman Niklas Kronwall in front of him. Seabrook's shot deflected off Kronwall's leg before it sailed into the left side of the net for the defenceman's first goal of the post-season.
"I don't know if I saw it go in to be honest," Seabrook said. "I just heard the horn going and the boys jumping out. It was a pretty exhausting game, but I think I was more tired during the celebration with guys jumping and pushing me in the face and dragging me down.
"It's exciting. You don't get to do that too many times."
The sellout crowd of 22,103 roared as Seabrook skated over to the boards and was mobbed by his delirious teammates.
Howard put his arm around Kronwall, who was down on one knee, and tried to console him while the Blackhawks celebrated.
"It's tough. How do you get upset at someone who's sacrificing their body out there to block shots?" Howard said. "Kroner has been huge for us all year and you know, he doesn't deserve that luck."
It was quite a change from the end of the third period, when the Blackhawks thought they had a go-ahead score. But it was waved off with less than 2 minutes remaining by referee Stephen Walkom, who called a pair of penalties behind the play.
Patrick Sharp put Chicago in front in the second period, and Henrik Zetterberg tied it in the third for No. 7 Detroit, which beat second-seeded Anaheim in seven games in the first round. Howard finished with 33 saves.
"They're a very talented group," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "I think we pushed them very hard in the series and had a lot of fun doing it."
Chicago made it to the conference finals for the first time since it won the title three years ago and will host Los Angeles in Game 1 on Saturday. The Kings advanced with a 2-1 victory over San Jose in Game 7 on Tuesday night.
Pittsburgh will host Boston in the opener of the Eastern finals on Saturday.
Chicago was one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup when the playoffs began, storming to the Presidents' Trophy during the lockout-shortened season. The Blackhawks then boosted their credentials with a five-game win over Minnesota in the first round and a convincing 4-1 victory against the Red Wings in the series opener.
But Howard and Detroit responded with three straight victories, pushing Chicago to the brink of elimination. The frustrated Blackhawks held a team meeting the day after Game 4, where the seeds were planted for their improbable comeback.
Three victories later—a stretch in which the Blackhawks outscored the Red Wings 10-5 after managing just two goals in Games 2-4—they became the 25th team to win a series after trailing 3-1. It was the first time in franchise history Chicago has made such a comeback.
"You go back to after Game 4," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Their approach and the belief in the room, and each other, was there. It was a strong season and we had to find a way. I think winning here in Game 5 got us excited again and got the momentum back.
"The last two games were tightly fought and amazing games."
Crawford finished with 26 saves, continuing his strong performance after allowing a soft goal that nearly proved costly in Game 6. He was especially tough after Detroit turned up the pressure early in the third.
The Blackhawks celebrated wildly when Niklas Hjalmarsson blasted a slap shot by Howard with 1:47 left in regulation, prompting cheers from the raucous crowd.
But Chicago forward Brandon Saad and Detroit defenceman Kyle Quincey got tangled up in front of the Red Wings bench. Walkom stopped play to give roughing penalties to both players as the Blackhawks went in for what appeared to be the go-ahead goal.
"It was getting to the point where he had to call the penalty, I guess. We were going back and forth," Quincey said. "I guess it worked in our favour there."
After a seesaw series with all sorts of twists and turns, Chicago and Detroit faced off one more time in a Western Conference playoff game. The Red Wings will move to the East after this season as part of NHL realignment while the Blackhawks remain in the West.
Playing on soft ice due in part to The Rolling Stones concert on Tuesday night, the Original Six teams provided a fitting conclusion to a compelling series.
"You have to give the Red Wings credit," Sharp said. "They're a well-coached team, they keep coming at you. Each game could have gone the other way. But we have to be proud of ourselves in this locker room for being able to battle back."
The Blackhawks got an opening at the start of the second period when Sharp got Kronwall to turn the puck over while the Red Wings changed lines. Sharp then skated in with Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa and finished a pretty passing sequence with his seventh goal of the playoffs at 1:08.
The Red Wings tied it at the beginning of the third. Gustav Nyquist made a nice move to get open along the boards and found a streaking Zetterberg on the left side for the captain's first goal since the Red Wings' 3-2 victory at Anaheim in Game 7 of the first round.
"To go all the way, you need a lot of luck," Detroit forward Daniel Cleary said. "You need to be healthy to win. The last five teams that won Cups were still alive. There's probably a reason for that. They're a good team. I mean, tip your hat to them. They played well."
NOTES: Detroit C Valtteri Filppula didn't return after leaving in the first period with an undisclosed lower body injury. ... It was the third Game 7 between the Red Wings and Blackhawks. Detroit won 4-2 in 1964, and Chicago returned the favour by the same score a year later.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
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