ST. LOUIS — Ken Hitchcock said it was like watching mini-golf, if only there were 19,935 frothing fans and a handful of jobs hanging on Troy Brouwer knocking in a five-footer with Corey Crawford scrambling to be the windmill on the green.
There were 11 minutes remaining in a deadlocked Game 7. Brouwer’s one-timer hit off the post, and his rebound was on his way back out to him.
He whiffed. And then nearly stepped on the puck as it squirted out toward the slot.
It was the ultimate cringe-worthy moment, embodying the struggle for a Blues franchise which had been so close for so many years but couldn’t get over the line.
“God was it an anxious moment on the bench,” Hitchcock said. “Then, to see it, it almost looked like he kicked it. I would’ve had a heart attack on the bench right there.”
This time, the Blues pushed through. It took Brouwer three different whacks, as many as it took his Blues to knock off the defending Stanley Cup champions, to will it over the goal line.
Scottrade Center and all of St. Louis erupted.
“I think I celebrated the goal three different times there until he actually put it in,” said Robby Fabbri, who setup the sequence.
Brouwer called it the ugliest goal of his career. He couldn’t have picked a bigger moment to collect his first point in his seventh consecutive Game 7.
“If I didn’t put that one in, I might’ve quit hockey,” Brouwer said.
Hitchcock survived another heart attack – after a Brent Seabrook shot hit one post, skidded across the goal line and hit the other, causing the goal light to come on – and the Blues buried their own playoff demons with a 3-2 instant classic Game 7 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.
It was just the first round, but it felt like a Stanley Cup final – with nearly as much on the line for the Blues. The only shame was that one of these two Western Conference heavyweights had to go home so soon.
It was fitting, then, that Coldplay’s “Fix You” blared on the sound system as the Blues and Blackhawks shook hands. The Blues were fixed, after so many gut-wrenching handshakes in year’s past.
“It’s a disappointing thing for fans on both sides that one of these teams has to go home,” Toews said. “You have to think with the confidence they’re going to have coming out of this Game 7 that there’s no reason they can’t contend all the way to the end.”
Their 3-2 lead from Brouwer was just about the only one the Blues did not blow in the series. They coughed up a 3-1 series lead, a 3-1 advantage in Game 6 and a two-goal edge to start Game 7. They held Jonathan Toews off the scoresheet for the first time in a series in his NHL career, and wiggled their way out of precarious spots with Patrick Kane on Monday night.
“We didn’t make it easy on ourselves,” Jay Bouwmeester said.
There will be second round playoff hockey in St. Louis for just the second time since 2002.
With Chicago’s ouster, there will not be an Original Six or Canadian representative among the final eight teams for the first time in 123-year history of the Stanley Cup.
For the Blues, and particularly GM Doug Armstrong, Tuesday marked validation. He dug in and kept the bulk of the core together through years of disappointment, gave Hitchcock one more shot to get it right, and added Brouwer and key rookies in Fabbri and Colton Parayko.
St. Louis said all the right things and then followed through, both with the leads and even when adverse calls went against them in the series, like the momentum-swinging offside challenge in Game 2.
“I don’t know if this is a milestone, but it’s a hump,” Hitchcock explained. “It was really eye-opening what a championship team can do, like them, when they dial it up. You find yourself on the bench just in awe of some of the things they do. We have knowledge now of what it takes and now we’ve got to use it. It’s the emotional knowledge of how deep you had to dig.
“It’s easy to talk about, it’s easy to discuss. But it’s hard unless you’ve gone through it – just hope deep you have to go emotionally. You’ve got to go so deep, to where it’s so uncomfortable. There’s a reason teams win and it’s not skill. It’s this ability to into really tough areas and succeed, even at times feel comfortable.”
St. Louis couldn’t have gone into any deeper of a hole, only to come out on the other end.
The Blues will meet Central division champion Dallas in the Western Conference semifinal beginning on Friday night.
Hitchcock, who led the Stars to their only Stanley Cup title in 1999, said the Blues now harness the power of an “inner-confidence” that a team has where they think they can make their opponent crack. Whether the Blues can take advantage now bares watching.
“I’m sure leaving Game 6, they probably thought they had us cracked,” Hitchcock said. “They pushed us back hard and we had no answer for Game 6. We came back and had an answer tonight. We needed to not just run up against the wall and fall backwards again. We needed that knowledge. We’ve got it now.”
Frank Seravalli TSN | Video: HardcoreSteelheader via Youtube | Photo:
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