Almost no one gave them a chance, even if the St. Louis Blues held the home-ice advantage.
After all, the Blues have had a history of coming up small in the big game – the opposite of the reputation you want in the NHL. When the going got tough, the Blues usually got going – right out of the playoffs, onto the golf courses. Whenever the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings were playing for the Stanley Cup, the Blues were busily plotting for next year.
Three years in a row, the Blues went into the first round as the favourites and lost – once to the Kings, once to the Blackhawks, once to the Minnesota Wild. They were Charlie Brown, victimized by a series of Lucy van Pelts.
But these are changing times in the NHL, where the underdogs are having their day. Everybody's former punching bags are suddenly flexing their muscles. The Blues took out the Blackhawks in a thrilling climax to the best series of the first round Monday night. Coughing up an early 2-0 lead, the Blues survived to win the seventh game by a single goal – 3-2, the deciding marker coming from St. Louis's Troy Brouwer, a member of Chicago's 2010 Stanley Cup team.
It means, first off, the NHL will crown a new Stanley Cup champion in 2016, Chicago failing to defend the title it won last year. After the Blackhawks and Kings passed the Stanley Cup back and forth five times in the last six years – punctuated only by the Boston Bruins' win in 2011 – all those recent powerhouses are now on the outs, often victims of their own success.
The Blues could have been undone by a loss to Chicago in the second game of the series, when a coaching challenge of an offside play went against them and turned the momentum in the Blackhawks' favour. The coaches' challenge is both the curse and bane of these playoffs; it cost the Florida Panthers their opening-round series versus the New York Islanders.
But the Blues found a way of overcoming that setback as well as the back-to-back losses absorbed in Games 5 and 6 of the series.
"You play a series like this, you see why that team's won three Stanley Cups," Blues' coach Ken Hitchcock said afterward. "We have knowledge now of what it takes and the bottom line is we have to use it – the emotional knowledge of how deep you have to dig. We've run into the wall a few times when we've reached the knowledge stage, but this time we pushed through.
"We have an opportunity in front of us."
The Blues do. They have a realistic chance of going all the way, with their deepest team in years, a squad where the young stars – Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz – have settled in as established NHLers, and the old pros on the blue line, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk, made life difficult for the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who, by their own previous standards, had quiet series. The Blackhawks' Marian Hossa was, on balance, their most consistently dangerous forward.
It was a wonderful game that put a punctuation mark on a wonderful series, the hardest fought of the first round. Ultimately, the Blackhawks were undone by a mistake from rookie defenceman Erik Gustafsson, whose turnover in the neutral zone led to Brouwer's winning goal. Brouwer fanned on his original pass at the puck, but had enough presence of mind to gather it in and nudge the rebound into the goal.
Afterward, Brouwer described it as "probably the ugliest goal I ever scored – and also the most timely."
As time wound down, the Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook took a shot that hit both goalposts behind St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott, but didn't cross the line. The game was that close, the finale that dramatic.
"That's the division we're in, the conference we're in, the best in the game," said Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville, who seemed absolutely gutted by the result. "You've got to win four series against four tough opponents and we had the toughest matchup you could face in the first round, but that's the draw. And we didn't get it done."
The evidence of the Blackhawks' slippage was there, in tiny increments, for a while now, but nobody really knew how to read it.
Chicago looked weary in the second half – after a 12-game, midseason win streak that certified them as a potential championship squad, they were a .500 team the rest of the way. In the playoffs, rookie-of-the-year candidate Artemi Panarin couldn't find any space against the suffocating Blues' defence. His regular linemate, Patrick Kane, the NHL's second-leading goal-scorer, produced just the one goal, the overtime winner in Game 6. Jonathan Toews, the team captain, so used to conjuring up big plays at big moments, couldn't this time around. He had zero goals in seven games.
And the bottom half of the Blackhawks' defence couldn't hold the fort against a deep and punishing St. Louis team. Trevor van Riemsdyk turnovers cost them games early. Gustafsson's miscue was pivotal in the deciding game. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson weren't enough, not when St. Louis could smell blood and weakness and this time, was able to pounce.
Blackhawks' general manager Stan Bowman gets a lot of credit for making astute moves around the edges of the roster to accommodate the big-time salaries he needs to pay Toews, Kane and the rest of his core group, but that's where teams such as Chicago and Los Angeles become vulnerable, the soft underbelly of their organizations, where you cross your fingers and hope that players coming through the system can step in and make a difference right away. But Chicago lost a first-rounder in a trade with Arizona last spring to acquire one rental (Antoine Vermette) and will surrender another first-rounder to Winnipeg this year in exchange for Andrew Ladd.
Some in Winnipeg feared that choice could be as low as 30th overall, which it would have been had the Blackhawks won the Cup. By exiting in the first round, it'll be considerably better than that.
It'll be a long summer for Kane and Toews, though both will have to gear up for the World Cup come September – Kane playing for the United States, Toews for Canada. It is a lot of hockey that a lot of the high-end players on championship teams are asked to play – and contrary to what social media would have you believe, they're not machines.
Sometimes, as was the case for Chicago on Monday night, there just isn't anything more to give.