Blackhawks make it into the playoffs with "blessings" from the Wild

The Minnesota Wild handed Chicago a gift on Sunday evening: a berth for the playoffs.

In a turnaround from last season, the final available seed of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs was a Western Conference team, not an Eastern one -- and not only that, but it was a battle between the defending Stanley Cup champions and the Dallas Stars. The entire league had written off Minnesota's chances a week earlier; the belief was that the Stars would win out their season and steal away the 8th-spot from the Blackhawks, who had a far tougher final stretch of games to get through.

The weekend race to the finish was so tight that Chicago could have finished anywhere from 4th to 9th, depending on how their final games played out. If this season had operated under the same tie-breaking rules as previous years, Chicago would have already clinched their berth. Likewise, if the NHL played under a 3-2-1 points system, Chicago would've already clinched. But under the new rules, it is tie-breaker rule # 2 that has made the difference and brought the final outcome down to splitting hairs: "The greater number of games won, excluding games won in the Shootout."

No longer is it important if you simply won more games, period. You won more games than the guy next to with the same number of points, but you won more of them in a shootout? Lower ranking for you.

Chicago had a vital game vs long-standing rival Detroit on Sunday afternoon. Detroit has won the Central Division title 9 of the past 10 years. The only other team to win it in that stretch? Chicago, en route to their Stanley Cup last year. Despite spoiling Chicago's season opener and banner-raising with a Red Wings win, Detroit didn't do as well against them the rest of the season: the Blackhawks won 4 of their 5 matchups, including last Friday's match at the Joe. But yesterday was the day that counted: if Chicago won, or even got one point out of an overtime loss, then they were in, and the Dallas/Minnesota game wouldn't even matter, because even with a win, Dallas would fall one point short. In addition to the other tie-breaker rules, if Dallas had won their final game and gotten to 97 points, they would've held a tie-breaker over Chicago.

The Blackhawks came out and played hard; but the Red Wings played harder, and won in regulation, denying Chicago either of the points they badly needed. To be in the United Center last night was heartbreaking. For the second season in a row, the final game of the season was lost to Detroit - except this time, it was assumed that the Blackhawks season was over. In the space of 10 months, from the highest euphoria of winning the Stanley Cup, to getting knocked out of the playoffs in the final minutes of the season for want of a single point.

But in their own final game of the season, with the eighth place spot in the West ripe and theirs for the taking, the Stars just couldn't find their game against Minnesota.

The Wild had their own reasons for wanting to knock the Stars out of the playoffs. After all, the Stars started their existence in 1967 as the Minnesota North Stars. Amid controversy, the team was relocated to Dallas in 1993, although the NHL promised Minnesota a new team in the future. Minnesota was awarded a new franchise in 2000 which became the Wild.

There's little doubt that the idea of knocking out the Stars, from a historical standpoint, was tempting enough. But the Wild also had the simplest motivation going for them as well: already out of playoff standings, they had the opportunity to play spoiler for somebody else, much like St. Louis attempted to do to Chicago last week.

"That's definitely something that drove us a bit," Wild enforcer Brad Staubitz said in post-game interviews. "If we're going, bring someone with you."

Dallas must've believed their own press, because they came out flat against a determined Wild team. Although the Stars made it out of the first period with a lead, the Wild had tied it up and then Antti Miettinen - formerly of the Dallas Stars, as it turns out - scored the game-winning goal, before Pierre-Marc Bouchard threw in the empty-netter with 0:13 left on the clock to seal the Stars' fate.

Perhaps the best moment of the game happened after that goal, when a fan wearing a Montreal t-shirt seated directly behind the Stars bench bid adieu to Dallas with a golfer's salute:

It was a strange moment, leaving the United Center after the game yesterday. After all, prior to last year's championship season, and the 2008-09 playoff run, Chicagoans had endured too many years of defeat. As home to the team with the worst playoff record in sports - the Chicago Cubs - the city is somehow oddly equipped to deal with epic sports failure. There is disappointment, and there is even anger, but there's also "there's always next year". With the Bulls having clinched an NBA playoff berth and basketball poised to make a resurgence, combined with the baseball season having just started, there are other things for fans to begin focusing on if need be.

But as the Minnesota game drew to a close, Blackhawks fans - and players - were glued to their TVs, their computers, their smartphones. When Dallas took the lead in the first, it seemed inevitable - the Wild would add one more loss to their 38-35-8 record, and the Hawks, after struggling all year, would have no one but themselves to blame for missing the playoffs. (Chicago fans are realists about that.) When faced with the harshness of the final five-game schedule for the teams remaining in contention for the 8th spot, Blackhawks fans had had plenty of time to prepare themselves for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there would be no playoff run this year.

Then the amazing happened: the Wild took the lead early in the third. And while Dallas tried, peppering Jose Theodore with 11 SOG in the final frame, the Wild locked down, and held on to the win.

Across Chicago, celebrations broke out in bars, in homes. The official Minnesota Wild page on Facebook was flooded with "Thank you!" messages from a grateful Chicago fan base. Twitter lit up with "We love you, Minnesota!" tweets. Amused Wild fans responded, "If you're really grateful, you'll send us Toews/Kane!"

Somebody on the Wild had a great sense of humor, because the Wild's home page featured news of the win under the title "By the way, Chicago... you're welcome":

And somewhere, in their own homes, a roster full of Blackhawks found out they were given a reprieve.

Patrick Sharp, in a phone interview on the NHL network, admitted to being "pretty relieved" and that the team "wasn't exactly in the best mood" after their loss. Coach Quenneville admitted to celebrating like a little kid at a birthday party. Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane promptly called his barber and got him to come downtown and give him the second annual playoff mullet for the road ahead.

Had the Stars won, the Chicago Blackhawks would've gone into the record books on two counts: 1. As one of just a handful of teams who won the Stanley Cup and then missed the playoffs the following season; and 2. They would have missed the playoffs with the highest point total (97) on record.

The pressure all lies upon Vancouver now. Like Chicago last year, Vancouver is riding a wave of heavy expectations into the playoffs. Despite being ravaged by injuries, the team had a dominant season, winning along the way the President's Trophy, the William Jennings, and the Art Ross. They may well add more hardware, including the Stanley Cup, in the two months to come. They carry the weight of 40 years of expectations, and the belief of a nation, upon their shoulders, and need to prove to their fan base that they are the team to do it this year.

Chicago believed their season was over. Aside from the crushing disappointment, the team is relieved of much of the pressure by making the playoffs the way they did. They are granted a second life; a rebirth for the post-season. Anything the team does - any rounds that the team can make it through at this point - is a bonus to their season. All the mistakes and inconsistencies of the regular season will be forgiven if the Blackhawks can show drive and consistency and fire in the games ahead.

And if the Blackhawks can go all the way to the Final round, they will have done what the Flyers did last year: won their way into the playoffs on the final day, in the final game. No doubt the NHL has enjoyed that drama, although it is worth noting that Chicago would have clinched its berth earlier had last season's standing rules still remained the same.

The two teams are 2-2 this season. It could be anybody's first round.