The United Center was booming Wednesday night, packed with more than 22,000 fans there to cheer their team on as they made their final push to the Western Conference Finals. It was the last time the Blackhawks and Red Wings would meet as conference rivals, and after a roller coaster of a series, both teams were making their final push in Game 7 in Chicago.
Heading into the semifinals, all things pointed up for the Blackhawks. The Red Wings came in as the underdog, but that was nothing new for the team that had already pushed past the second-seeded Ducks in the quarterfinals. They proved their worth after suffering a 4-1 loss in Game 1 against the Blackhawks as they came back to take a 3-1 lead in the series. Detroit was confident in where they stood against the league's No. 1 team, and despite dropping the last two matchups to Chicago, they felt they had what it took to get the job done in Game 7.
But the Red Wings' final attempt at advancing was cut short.
"Of course it feels really empty right now. I think we played a good game, we did a lot of good things," captain Henrik Zetterberg said following his team's 2-1 loss. "We had momentum, we played well and created a lot of chances, but unfortunately we couldn't get one."
The Blackhawks got on the board at the start of the second period as Patrick Sharp recorded his seventh goal of the playoffs. Zetterberg responded by tying the game just 26 seconds into the third and gave Detroit the momentum and control they needed.
"It was nice that we tied it up early in the third there, and after that we had momentum," Zetterberg said. "We played well, we created chances. But unfortunately we couldn't get one more past."
The emotional roller coaster hit an all-time high inside the United Center after a goal by Niklas Hjalmarsson was waved off with just 1:47 left to play in regulation. For the Red Wings, it was a chance to come back and make a case for themselves, but an overtime goal by Brent Seabrook meant the end of the road for Detroit.
"We were confident coming out into overtime, had a good feeling in the room," defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said. "We just said we were going to go for it and then it just ends like that and the whole season ends like that. It feels kinda surreal and empty right now."
Goaltender Jimmy Howard came up with plenty of key saves throughout the series, but the disappointment of the loss made it too early to talk about the positives throughout the last seven games.
"It's the end of the road for us, and it's obviously a very disappointing way to go out," said Howard, who stopped 33 shots against the Blackhawks Wednesday night. "We played some good hockey. We stuck to our game plan and in Game 6, it felt like we should have won that one. Tonight was one of those games with great goaltending on both ends. But the puck went off me for the winning goal."
The disappointment throughout the Red Wings locker room was abundantly clear, but despite the outcome, the team put on a heck of a postseason performance. Coach Mike Babcock knows there's a lot to be proud of regarding his team, but is ready for the work that has to be put in over the offseason.
"Those dreams you have as a kid, in Game 7 you always score. The other team doesn't score," Babcock said. "I thought we did a lot of really good things here tonight. I thought our guys really stepped up. We had a really good third period. We had a glorious chance in the third period and [Corey] Crawford made a huge save right after we had scored. That's hockey.
"I think our guys played hard. I think we really competed. I say this all the time, maximize with what you've got and I think our group did that. I'd like to see a healthy [group] because I know we could be a way better team. We need to be better if we want to be in this position consistently. We've got some work to do as a group this summer."