With their season hanging on the direction a vulcanized round piece of black rubber was headed, the St. Louis Blues and their fans held their collective breath Monday night and hoped for the best.
A shot from Chicago’s Brent Seabrook hit the right goalpost behind Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, slid right across the goal line, then struck the left goalpost before finally being cleared out of danger by defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.
If the puck goes in, the Blues are likely looking at overtime against a Blackhawks team that had won two straight and was trying to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
It didn’t — and Blues fans can now look forward to a second-round playoff series that begins Friday against the Dallas Stars thanks to Troy Brouwer’s game-winning goal that broke a 2-2 tie in the third period and led to a 3-2 victory.
“We’ll rub those down on the way out tonight and thank them a couple times,” Blues captain David Backes joked after the game when asked about the goalposts.
“Maybe people will start talking about what a unique team we have,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said at the end of his postgame session. “We have a unique team. We have a team that’s a team in every sense of the word. This is the most together group of athletes I’ve coached in a long long time. Who knows what happens, but we’re very much a team in every sense of the word.
“I know how good Chicago is, but for everything we’ve done collectively together and how close these guys are, I wanted them to have success and they did it. The naysayers, they need to take a day off. We can celebrate for a day and then you can all start bashing us in a couple of days.”
A loss could have been mentally devastating for the Blues and their fan base. The Blues led the series 3-1 after four games and failed in two previous chances to close out the Blackhawks in Games 5 and 6, not to mention three straight first-round playoff eliminations.
The Blues-Hawks series was tied or within one goal for an incredible 91.3 percent of the time according to the NHL.
There were plenty of anxious moments to be sure, but the Blues held on and finally slayed their division rival dragon.
“I don’t know if it’s a milestone, but it’s a hump,” Hitchcock said when asked about the significance of the series win. “We have knowledge now of what it takes and now we’ve got to use it. 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.”
There was definitely a different feel about this ending.
Blues fans tried to blow the roof off of Scottrade Center with their high-decibel cheering and hung around long after the game was over before taking the party elsewhere.
One of hockey’s best traditions is the handshake line after each series. Players who were trying to hammer each other through the boards a few minutes earlier take time to congratulate each other before heading to their respective dressing rooms.
“It’s a good feeling to go through that line and smile for a change rather than having the frowns and the sad faces that we’ve had so many times in the first round,” Backes said.
The Blues have spoken continually about how this is a different team with a different approach. While some key parts remain from teams that made three straight first-round playoffs, players like Brouwer, Scottie Upshall and rookies like Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko have made this a different kind of club.
More hungry. More resilient. More able to deal with bad bounces, bad goals, bad calls and most importantly — injuries to star players.
“We’re still not where we want to be,” Brouwer said after scoring the biggest goal in recent Blues memory. “We want to be playing in a month and a half still. But for the franchise who’s had a little bit of trouble getting out of that first round it’s a big confidence booster.
“Sometimes when you’re not able to do it you start doubting yourself and (it) is a huge encouragement for us as a franchise.”
Backes also talked about the importance of Brouwer goal.
“I think he might have blown that in with his breath if he didn’t get it with his backhand there,” Backes said. “He’s been battling all series and did a heck of a job checking their top players. For him to bury that one it’s a good feeling for everyone in here. We couldn’t be happier for him.”
Anatomy of the Game 7 series clincher
A lot went into making Brouwer’s game-winning goal happen.
The good vibes began when Fabbri forced ‘Hawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson into a turnover in the neutral zone.
The puck came to Pietrangelo, who quickly worked it ahead to Paul Stastny. Stastny threaded a cross-ice pass through Chicago’s Artemi Anisimov onto the stick of Fabbri, who quickly found Brouwer open in front.
It still took a lot to get the puck in. Brouwer’s first attempt hit the goalpost behind Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, then he fanned on his second attempt.
Brouwer finally managed to sweep a backhander into the net, setting off an explosion of noise.
“I think I celebrated the goal three different times there until he actually put it in,” Fabbri said. “When I saw the play developing, I noticed he was alone in front; (I) just wanted to get it to him, knew he’d do the rest.
“It was just a great all-around play, without (Stastny) finding me the play wouldn’t happen.”
NHL Second-Round Playoff Schedule
St. Louis Blues vs. Dallas Stars
Friday, April 29
Game 1: Blues at Dallas, 7 p.m. (NBCSN, TVA Sports)
Sunday, May 1
Game 2: Blues at Dallas, 2 p.m. (KSDK Channel 5; TVA Sports)
Tuesday, May 3
Game 3: Dallas at Blues, 7 p.m. (USA, TVA Sports)
Thursday, May 5
Game 4: Dallas at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN, TVA Sports)
Saturday, May 7
Game 5: Blues at Dallas, TBA
Monday, May 9
Game 6: Dallas at Blues, TBA
Wednesday, May 11
Blues at Dallas, TBA