CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks hadn't faced much adversity this season during what has been an amazing journey. When they did, they proved up to the challenge after all.
After the Blackhawks roared through the Western Conference during the regular season en route to the Presidents' Trophy, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville felt his team needed to find a new level after dispatching the eighth-seeded Minnesota Wild in five games in the opening round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings provided a much stiffer test and pushed the Blackhawks to the brink of an ignominious elimination by winning three of the first four games in the Western Conference Semifinals. But Chicago cemented its championship-caliber credentials Wednesday night, defeating the Red Wings 2-1 in overtime of Game 7 to become the 25th team in NHL history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit.
"You go back to after Game 4. Their approach and the belief in the room, and each other was there," Quenneville said. "It was a strong season and we had to find a way. I think winning here in Game 5 got us excited again and got the momentum back. The last two games were tightly fought and amazing games. Finding a way to win that big third period the other night and finding a way to win tonight as well.
"We're excited about where we're at. Give Detroit credit. It was a tough series, a great series. We were on the ropes for a long time in that series, so we're very excited about where we're at today."
The Blackhawks will face the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals. Game 1 will be at United Center on Saturday (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), and Game 2 will follow Sunday evening. It's the first time since 1945 and only the second time ever that the NHL's final four will feature the four most recent Cup winners, as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins square off in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Brent Seabrook scored his first goal of this postseason 3:35 into overtime after the Blackhawks fended off a furious push from the Red Wings in the third period and the distraction of a controversial disallowed goal late in regulation.
Seabrook, who saw his ice time reduced earlier in the series before being reunited with his old partner Duncan Keith before Game 5, was one of the team's top players during the comeback. After a big hit by Dave Bolland freed up the puck, Seabrook ripped a shot from the high slot that went off Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall and past Howard to complete Chicago's first-ever comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
"I didn't realize how far back the D was. I didn't realize how much room I had," Seabrook said. "Once I saw the d-man on his back. I know Kronwall, he's a great defenseman. He tried to get out there and block it. I just wanted to get it past him and on net so I could change. Luckily it went in."
It was the third chance for the Red Wings to complete another upset and prolong this unexpected postseason. After staving off elimination twice against the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks with a seven-game victory in the opening round, the Red Wings stunned the Blackhawks by dealing them their first three-game losing streak of the season.
For a team that lost Nicklas Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, Tomas Holmstrom and Jiri Hudler in the offseason, this "rebuilding" year will be considered a success. But missing out on three chances to knock out the rival Blackhawks and reach the conference finals still hurts.
"Win," forward Daniel Cleary said when asked what could have been done differently. "I don't know. I thought we played a good game, had a good third period. Listen, it is a good team we played. Guys should be proud and disappointed. We had a chance, three chances to close them out and we just didn't get it done."
Seabrook's goal mitigated a potential controversy after what looked like the go-ahead goal by Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson with 1:49 left in regulation was negated when referee Stephen Walkom called matching roughing minors away from the play on Detroit's Kyle Quincey and Chicago's Brandon Saad.
Patrick Sharp gave the Blackhawks the lead with a goal 68 seconds into the second period. Chicago dominated possession of the puck in the opening minute, and when Detroit got the puck out of its own zone defensemen Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson both went for a change after being on the ice since the start of the period.
Hjalmarsson retrieved the clearance and snapped a pass from near his own blue line to Michal Handzus, triggering a 3-on-1 break. The puck went to Sharp, who dropped it for Handzus, then to Marian Hossa and finally back to Sharp for a tight-angled shot that beat Howard.
It was Sharp's seventh goal of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which ties him with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis for the most in the League. Sharp had five in the first round and an empty-netter in Game 1 of this series, but had gone five contests without a goal.
"They went for a line change, I felt that I could get maybe a breakaway opportunity," Sharp said. "Obviously I got cut off with that. A couple of nice passes, I had an open net. It was a big goal for us."
Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg continued his amazing run of production in his team's biggest games this season by scoring the tying goal 26 seconds into the third period.
The Blackhawks' Johnny Oduya got the puck out of his zone, but Cleary caught the Red Wings' chip back in near the blue line and got the puck to Gustav Nyquist. That gave Detroit a 2-on-1, and Nyquist flipped a pass over a sliding Seabrook to Zetterberg for an easy one-timer with Corey Crawford overplaying the rookie forward.
In Detroit's seven biggest games of the season -- the final four of the regular season (all wins to claim a playoff spot on the last day), the two elimination games in the opening round against the Anaheim Ducks and this one -- Zetterberg has six goals and 16 points.
The Blackhawks thought they had taken the lead when Hjalmarsson ripped a shot from near the top of the left circle that beat Howard, and the crowd went crazy, but Walkom waived the goal off from near the benches.
The Red Wings lost a top-six forward early in the first period when Valtteri Filppula left the game with a lower-body injury and did not return. Filppula, who had six points in five career Game 7s (including two against Anaheim in the opening round), played only 1:28 in two shifts. He got tangled up with Chicago's Viktor Stalberg as he was leaving the ice on the second shift, and replays showed Stalberg kicked Filppula's leg out from under him.
A team spokesman after the game said Filppula suffered a high ankle sprain.
Howard made 35 saves, including several great ones in the first 40 minutes while Chicago carried most of the play. His opposite number at the other end, Corey Crawford, had to make a couple of big stops after Zetterberg leveled the score and finished with 27 saves.
This was the final time these two teams will meet as rivals in the same conference, as the Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference next season. Given the history these two franchises share -- this was the 16th playoff series between the two -- this final showdown proved to be a proper sendoff.
"Putting on the jersey today, you know, I wanted to give it as much as I can," said Cleary, who can become an unrestricted free agent in July. "I wanted to keep going. I thought we had a good team and a good chance. We were potentially going to get [rookie defenseman Danny] DeKeyser back. Just wasn't meant to be. That's all."
Now the Blackhawks are halfway there as they try to capture the Stanley Cup for the second time in the past four seasons. The Kings, with all-world goaltender Jonathan Quick and a punishing style of play, will be a new challenge. But for the Blackhawks, this was a giant test, and even with a little extra drama near the end, they passed.
"We did have some learning curves in this round definitely," Seabrook said. "Detroit played a great series. We really had to find ourselves after the fourth game being down 3-1. I thought the boys responded well. We played a very good Game 5. I thought we played a very good Game 6. I thought we played very well tonight. Detroit gave us all they had. It was just nice to come out on the winning end of this."