Call it karma or divine intervention from the hockey gods, but the Chicago Blackhawks had something working in their favor by the time overtime of Game 7 rolled around in their Western Conference semifinal Wednesday night.
In essence, a terrible decision by referee Stephen Walkom caused the Blackhawks to win Game 7 twice. Fortunately, they were up to the task or otherwise the NHL would have quite a messy situation on its hands.
Chicago, the West's top seed, was tied with Detroit heading into the closing minutes of regulation when the Blackhawks struck for what should've been the game-winner. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson blasted a slap shot past Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard with 1:49 to play, but at the same time Walkom had his eyes trained on a different part of the action and that's when potential disaster struck.
For some reason, Walkom called matching roughing minors on Chicago's Brandon Saad and Detroit's Kyle Quincey, who were locked in a scrum way behind the play in the neutral zone.
Even worse, replays showed Saad did little wrong while Quincey was busy driving him to the ice. That means if Walkom had made the correct call -- roughing on the Red Wings -- than Hjalmarsson's goal would not have been waved off due to a delayed penalty call.
But it was waved off, much to the chagrin of the crowd of 22,000 people who turned out to watch Chicago pull off a memorable series comeback. Luckily, the Blackhawks were able to regroup after a bonehead decision by an official nearly cost them a series. After fighting back from a 3-1 deficit in the series, it would've been a shame to see Chicago go down under such circumstances.
So, when Brent Seabrook wristed a puck off the leg of Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall and past Howard just 3:35 into the extra session, all seemed right in the world of hockey. And you can bet Walkom breathed a sigh of relief, knowing the storm that was about to hit him if the Red Wings had won the decisive game.
Of course, this is not to take anything away from the Red Wings, who proved they were a much better team than the No. 7 next to their name indicated. Chicago's superior depth may have won out over the course of seven games, but Detroit held its ground as the Blackhawks turned the tide and the last two battles of the series were decided by only one goal.
Head coach Mike Babcock and his staff deserve high marks for beating second- seeded Anaheim in seven games during the first round and taking the Presidents' Trophy winners to the limit in the conference semifinals. They deserve respect for this year's playoff run, but in light of Walkom's call, a trip to the West finals would've seemed like a gift.
In the wake of Wednesday's Game 7, the NHL is ready to move forward with a conference final round filled with each of the last four Stanley Cup winners. The Blackhawks face the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings for West bragging rights, while the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins battle it out in the Eastern Conference finals.
With only marquee franchises remaining in the postseason tournament, the NHL has its dream scenario. Funny how it could've been a nightmare if Walkom's decision altered the final outcome in favor of Detroit.
RANGERS CUT TIES WITH TORTS
John Tortorella is a divisive figure, and it seems his "love it or leave it" style has finally cost him his job as head coach of the New York Rangers.
Shortly after New York announced the decision to fire Tortorella on Wednesday, the rumors that his players wanted him gone had already begun in earnest. Indeed, there seems to be something to these rumors and that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's paid attention to the irascible Tortorella's routine over the past several years.
Still, the exact nature of Tortorella's dismissal could remain mostly a mystery. The most popular theory is how star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's recent non-committal response when asked about signing a long-term extension with the Rangers signaled to ownership and general manager Glen Sather that a change had to be made.
The Rangers were the No. 1 seed in the East a year ago when they made it to the conference finals. This season, the Blueshirts bowed out in five games to Boston in the second round and that was enough to build the case against Tortorella. Perhaps the possibility of a player revolt was enough to put the final nails in his coffin.
No matter how you feel about Tortorella's brusque attitude toward the media and players, the guy led Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup title in 2004 and is someone who isn't likely to be out of work for long.
Even if his Rangers' teams underperformed in the playoffs, he still has value as a head coach in the league. But if prospective employers expect Torts to tone down his act in light of his recent firing, they probably are mistaken.
Those who know him say Torts is consistent in his rough behavior and isn't putting on an act. To some that's a breath of fresh air and to others his attitude creates a toxic atmosphere. As the rumors continue to flow out the Rangers' locker room, it's increasingly evident the latter opinion became the predominant viewpoint in New York.