Game 7 Central Division showdown: Blackhawks vs Red Wings tonight
After a playoff-shortened season, the NHL gets the kind of finish it can only have dreamed about.
Going into tonight's game between Chicago and Detroit, the last five teams standing are those who have won the Stanley Cup over the past five seasons: Detroit (2008), Pittsburgh (2009), Chicago (2010), Boston (2011), and Los Angeles (2012). Four major, long-time hockey markets, and last year's defending Cup champs.
The only way the league could have scripted it any better is if the Final comes down to the Blackhawks versus the Penguins, the two powerhouses of the NHL and regular-season winners of their respective conferences in a winner-take-all showdown.
Before it gets that far, however, is a final division rivalry game between Chicago and Detroit.
Call it what you will: the Battle of Lake Michigan; the battle of the Midwest; Hawkeytown versus Hockeytown. Currently Central Division rivals, these two Original Six teams have played more games against each other than any other teams in the league. This is the 16th playoff series between them; last time they met in the post-season was when the Red Wings eliminated the Blackhawks in 2009.
Of course this series had to come down to a game seven. Of course it did. The hockey gods decreed it so.
Chicago clawed themselves out of a 1-3 hole this series to force game seven. After dropping a couple of dud games against Detroit, the Blackhawks found their mojo in game five. They looked more like they had in the regular season, with more puck possession, crisper passing, and a better overall game. If they focus on tonight's game versus looking ahead to the next series, and if they play the full sixty, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Blackhawks can take game seven.
Detroit cannot be dismissed yet, either. The start of their season was rough, but they eventually got their skates under them and began clicking. For a while, it looked like the Red Wings playoff streak would end at twenty seasons; but they managed to make the playoffs, and knocked out Anaheim in seven games. They have proven that they just don't quit, and coach Mike Babcock has proven yet again of being a master bench boss.
With Monday night's win over Detroit, Chicago's Coach Joel Quenneville now has one more career playoff win than Babcock does. The two teams are closely matched, led by two of the winningest coaches in NHL history.
In the depths of the United Center right about now, two teams are going through their usual pre-game morning routines: morning skate, equipment checks, body work. Sticks are being taped, skates sharpened. They face each other as division and conference rivals tonight, a favorite rivalry among both fan bases.
Foremost on players' minds, however, will be the game ahead of them. Game sevens in the Stanley Cup playoffs are the type of games where sports legends are born. As the players themselves have said this week, these are the kind of games you dream about as a kid, playing hockey in your driveway. For the players, these kind of games are their idea of fun.
The seven game series has boiled down to one game. At the end of the night, a handshake line will wind across United Center ice, as one team moves on to the Western Conference Final, and one team heads home to begin thinking about what went wrong.
View tonight's game on NBCSN; in Canada, it can be found on CBC and RDS, or listen to the game via WGN 720 radio (phone app available).