Certainly, the Chicago Blackhawks had all the momentum heading into Wednesday's Game 7 against Detroit. After falling behind 3-1 to the Red Wings, Chicago won two straight games, including a stirring third-period rally to win Game 6 Monday in Detroit.
By the middle of the third period in the final game, that momentum didn't matter one iota. Henrik Zetterberg leveled the game 1-1 with a tally early in the third period. From there, the Red Wings absolutely owned the flow of play for most of the first ten minutes of the third. They peppered Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford with quality shots, and narrowly missed the net on other chances.
"Corey did a great job giving us the opportunity to win," defenseman Brent Seabrook said afterward.
With around two minutes left in regulation, Chicago got the puck into the offensive zone, and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson joined the rush. What followed appeared to be a potential game-winning goal. But Stephen Walkom had other ideas.
(When you confuse Mike Emrick -- even for five seconds -- you've done something.)
The veteran referee and former head of NHL officiating was the trailing official on this play, and he saw what he deemed worthy of coincidental minor penalties along the Detroit bench. Virtually everyone outside of Detroit disagreed with this assertion, and Walkom got hammered by analysts on and off TV. It was somewhat warranted, as the skirmish didn't seem to rise to the level of penalties, given what had gone on without calls throughout the game.
(Honestly, this is all I've ever asked out of officials. Be consistent. If it's a penalty in the first period, it should be one in the third. Mixing different crews into playoff series lessens the chance of consistency from game to game, but inside a particular game, it shouldn't be this difficult for a two-man crew to set a standard and stick to it.)
Instead of sulking, Chicago went to work on getting another goal, and Seabrook was able to get the goal that sent the Blackhawks back to the Western Conference Finals with a 2-1 win over the Wings.
"Commend the guys for their attitude," coach Joel Quenneville said. "You go back to after Game 4. 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."
Quenneville referenced Game 4 because that was when Detroit took a 3-1 series lead. It isn't an impossible hill to climb, but it takes the right mindset to get the job done.
"Give Detroit credit," the veteran coach said. "It was a tough series, a great series. We were on the ropes for a long time in that series, so we're very excited about where we're at today."
After Game 4, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews was under fire. He took undisciplined penalties, and it seemed the Red Wings had successfully gotten in his head. In turn, Toews' teammates followed the leader, and the whole team looked out of sorts.
Toews scored in the Game 5 win, and he was a huge factor in the Chicago rally to claim Game 6. He didn't figure in the Game 7 scoring, but he played with composure as the team came back. Like when he wasn't playing well, his teammates followed the captain, and in this case they played with great composure and focus.
Nowhere was that more obvious than in the waning seconds of regulation and the 3:35 of overtime required to net the game-winner.
The Blackhawks team that we saw lose three straight in this series would have been cooked after the Hjalmarsson goal was wiped out by Walkom. Instead, led by Quenneville, who was clearly trying to calm his team down on the bench after the call, Chicago fought back with resolve, just as it had through the previous two games.
"Obviously, they're a very talented group," Detroit head coach Mike Babcock said, "and I thought we pushed them real hard in the series. Those dreams you have as a kid in Game 7, you always score. The other team doesn't score.
"We needed to win one more."
Babcock and his team have nothing to hang their heads over. The Wings have some forward depth, thanks to the emergence of some youthful future stars like Gustav Nyquist and Damien Brunner. Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are in their primes, and there's nothing to indicate they'll slow down soon.
But the retirements of Niklas Lidstrom after last season and Brian Rafalski before that left gaping holes on the Detroit blue line. Those holes have yet to be filled. Niklas Kronwall was awesome in this series, and Jonathan Ericsson was very good as well, but the depth just isn't there. I think it hurt the Wings in this series.
Brendan Smith is going to be a very good player, but he wasn't ready for the minutes he was asked to play in this series. He made a lot of mistakes, much of which could be chalked up to inexperience. While it stinks that Babcock is basically stuck giving Smith such a trial by fire, he had little choice.
Last summer saw the retirement of the best defenseman we've seen in this league since Bobby Orr, and GM Ken Holland was unable to find anyone who could help fill that void. Ryan Suter ended up in Minnesota, Shea Weber stayed in Nashville after trying to sign in Philly, and the Wings struck out on secondary free agents, to the point where they had to sign Carlo Coliacovo to play huge minutes.
Now, the Chicago-Detroit rivalry basically goes dormant. Detroit moves to the Eastern Conference next season, where new and old rivalries against the likes of Boston, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Toronto will get going. With a little tweaking, there's no doubt the Wings will be a force in the East, especially given the way they played in this postseason.
Babcock is the best coach in the game right now. Give him some more help on the blue line, and Detroit will be a fixture at the top of the league again in no time.