The Chicago Blackhawks can thank the Minnesota Wild for getting a chance to win a second consecutive Stanley Cup.
Antti Miettinen's goal early in the third period against his former team gave the Wild the lead and kept the Dallas Stars out of the playoffs, with a 5-3 season-ending win over the Stars on Sunday.
The Blackhawks had a chance to wrap up the final playoff spot in the Western Conference earlier Sunday with just a point in their game against Detroit, but they fell 4-3 in regulation.
That left the door open for the Stars, who improbably controlled their own destiny after a terrible slide almost put them out of the playoff picture. But the team that used to call Minnesota home before moving to Texas couldn't get it done against a Wild team playing spoiler.
"I've never been more excited after a hockey game in my life that I didn't participate in," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday night after watching the Wild pull out the victory.
"I was acting like a two-year-old. ... It was unbelievable. I was shocked, surprised the way the whole game unfolded. I can't express my jubilation, enthusiasm and excitement."
Stars captain Brenden Morrow could barely speak in a silent dressing room after the game.
"We were getting some pretty good scoring opportunities—a lot of just whacking and hacking around the net, looking for a bounce," Morrow said of trailing 4-3 after Miettinen's goal. "I don't think any of us were questioning whether we were capable of doing it. We were just wondering who the hero was going to be."
Elsewhere in the NHL it was: New Jersey 3 Boston 2; Colorado 4 Edmonton 3; and Pittsburgh 5 Atlanta 2.
At St. Paul, Minn., the Stars watched the Blackhawks lose at home to Detroit as a team, and the mood as they prepared to take the ice was "euphoric" and "excited," according to coach Marc Crawford.
Though the Stars weren't consistently sharp with the puck and they managed only three shots on goal in the second period, their energetic stretches led to plenty of quality scoring chances. Dallas was on a four-game winning streak, in position to catch Chicago and win the head-to-head tiebreaker after looking all but finished a week and a half ago.
The Stars went 1-5-3 in a nine-game stretch that ended with losses at San Jose and Los Angeles last week by a combined score of 9-1. They beat Anaheim, though, to stop the slide and then found a fortunate section of the schedule with games against non-contenders Columbus, Colorado and Minnesota to close out the season.
But the Wild played with plenty of pride, scoring first on a rare goal by enforcer Brad Staubitz and last on an empty-netter by Pierre-Marc Bouchard after the Stars pulled goalie Kari Lehtonen with 1:21 left.
"That's definitely something that drove us a bit," Staubitz said. "If we're going, bring someone with you."
Crawford refused to criticize his team, praising their effort and the injuries Morrow and others played through down the stretch. The Stars played six times in the season's last nine days and had seven of their last nine games of the road.
"I'm really proud of those guys. They just battled their tails off," Crawford said. "They kept giving forth the effort, and you look at it coming down the stretch: Nobody gave us much of a chance."
That's hardly solace for a team like this. The Stars have missed the playoffs only five times in 17 seasons since the franchise moved from Minnesota, but three of those are in the last three years.
"We just couldn't close the deal," said defenceman Stephane Robidas, adding: "Bottom line: We knew it wasn't going to be easy."
Loui Eriksson had three assists, and Brad Richards, Morrow and Alex Goligoski scored for the Stars, who led 2-1 after the first period. Early in the third with the game tied, Andrew Brunette drew Lehtonen to the side and made a perfect behind-the-net feed as Miettinen sliced forward from the opposite side for an easy tap-in.
Then came a thunderous roar from the crowd, followed by a series of "Let's go Wild!" chants to finish it out.
With almost every player on the Stars bench standing, the pace of the game was intense down the stretch until the Wild went into a defensive shell for the last few minutes, surely pleasing the Blackhawks while they watched on television a few hundred kilometres east.
With the Wild fans on their feet, finally finding a reason to cheer in another frustrating season for the local team, the buzzer sounded while Eriksson, Steve Ott, Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro stayed seated on the bench with their heads down for a moment before slowly leaving the area.
"It was in our control, and we didn't win," said Richards, speaking slowly with a blank look on his face. He added: "We put too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect at the end, with no room for error."
Jared Spurgeon and Colton Gillies also scored for the Wild, who missed the post-season for a third straight time, the longest streak in their 10-year existence.
"It leaves you with a bitter taste, winning a game like this," Wild coach Todd Richards said. "It sure would be great to play 15 or 20 more like that."
At Chicago, Jimmy Howard made 33 saves and Detroit temporarily kept the defending champion Blackhawks from clinching the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
At Newark, N.J., Vladimir Zharkov and Alexander Urbom scored third-period goals and New Jersey topped playoff-bound Boston in what was Jacques Lemaire's final game as Devils coach.
At Denver, David Jones knocked in a rebound during a power play 3:57 into overtime and Colorado finished the season on a winning note by beating Edmonton.
At Atlanta, Tyler Kennedy scored the first of Pittsburgh's four second-period goals, reserve goalie Brent Johnson won his fourth straight decision, and the Penguins closed the regular season with a victory over the Thrashers.