DETROIT — The memories have grown fuzzy with time, the nearly 300 hockey games in the three years since blurring the moments together. The games are mixed up, the scores wrong and the venues switched as players search their minds for the signposts of the series.
But the emotions are still clear as day — and still surprisingly raw. The pressure felt by Corey Crawford, a zero-time Stanley Cup champion, after a disastrous first-round loss a year earlier. The frustration felt by Jonathan Toews as the penalties piled up and the goals didn’t. The blind rage felt by Niklas Hjalmarsson when the biggest goal of his life was taken away. The fear felt by Andrew Shaw that the Blackhawks were going to turn the greatest start in NHL history into an ignominious finish.
‘‘It was scary, I’ll tell you that,’’ Shaw said.
Three long years ago, when the top-seeded Hawks trailed the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings 3-1 in the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, the fear, pressure, frustration and rage were almost all-consuming. Lips were tight off the ice. Grips were tighter on it.
But the Hawks overcame it all — a meltdown from their captain, a third-period deficit in an elimination game, Hjalmarsson’s no-goal — to win the series in seven riveting games. It was the turning point in the season. And it was the defining moment in the modern history of the franchise.
Hyperbole? Hardly. The Hawks had lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons after their Stanley Cup run in 2010. Coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman were on the hot seat. A third consecutive early exit might have cost one of them his job. The core could have been reworked, if not dismantled. The Hawks easily could have become the Pittsburgh Penguins — one-Cup wonders, a nucleus of two megastars surrounded by ever-changing teammates, coaches, and management. Instead, their remarkable rally helped forge them into the unflappable, seemingly unkillable team they’ve become.
It all started with the Red Wings — their most hated rival, their most heated series.
‘‘We always kind of knew that we had a special group,’’ Toews said. ‘‘But when you win a series like that, it gives you such confidence. The more you win like that, the more invincible you feel.’’
Brent Seabrook didn’t know what else to do. He saw his captain losing control, losing the game, and losing his mind, sitting in the penalty box yet again with a scowl on his face and fury in his eyes. Toews hadn’t scored in nine playoff games, and had just taken his third penalty in a span of five minutes, 34 seconds — all of them stick penalties, all of them borne out of frustration, and all of them foolish — and the most level-headed player on the ice was on tilt.
So Seabrook entered the penalty box, put his arm around Toews, and told him to calm down, that his teammates were going to bail him out.
“He’s a heart-and-soul type of guy, and he was frustrated,” Seabrook said. “Our whole team was frustrated. I just needed to let him know it’s OK, we’ll get it figured out.”
The Red Wings scored on the second of Toews’ penalties, and went on to win 2-0 to put the Hawks down 3-1 in the series.
“That was my low point,” Toews said. “I was feeling some pressure, and the offense wasn’t happening, and I took a handful of penalties in one shot. I guess as a captain and as a part of this team, I was feeling I wasn’t bringing what I needed. And Seabsy came over and kind of let me know it didn’t matter, that we were going to get through it together.”
The Hawks returned to the United Center for Game 5 a troubled team. They had scored a combined two goals in the previous three games, all losses. The Red Wings were in their heads, with players whining about their clutch-and-grab tactics. Toews had just imploded on the playoff stage.
And the Hawks — a team that went the entire first half of the season without a regulation loss, a team Sports Illustrated dubbed ‘‘The Franchise That Brought Hockey Back’’ after yet another lockout — were on the brink of catastrophe.
After Quenneville held a team meeting back in Chicago, the players held one of their own. Nobody seems to remember exactly what was said, only that ‘‘five or six guys’’ — the team’s leadership group — stood up and talked, trying to inject some confidence into a shaken team.
‘‘We felt that pressure, especially with how our year went that year,’’ Shaw said. ‘‘We were unbelievable — single-digit losses, 21-0-3 to start — and we felt like it was our year. Then we put ourselves behind the eight-ball. Everyone was zoned in for that meeting. We knew what we needed to do after that, and we went out and did it.’’
It started simply enough, with a therapeutic 4-1 victory at home. Toews even got a goal in that one. It was a start. But it was only the beginning.
Twenty minutes from oblivion, the Hawks filed into the visitors’ dressing room at Joe Louis Arena for the second intermission of Game 6. An early 1-0 lead had become a 2-1 deficit, with Crawford giving up a terrible second-period goal to Joakim Andersson, and the old barn was rocking. Not a whole lot was said. Everybody knew the stakes.
‘‘I think a lot of guys maybe felt some pressure; I certainly did,’’ said Crawford, who entered the 2013 season determined to prove he was a big-time goalie after two soft overtime goals allowed the Arizona Coyotes to knock out the Hawks in the first round a year earlier.
Reporters already were writing their dirges, lamenting a magical season gone bad. But 51 seconds into the third period, Michal Handzus scored to tie the score. Five minutes later, Bryan Bickell scored to put the Hawks ahead 3-2. And four minutes after that, Michael Frolik roofed a backhander past Jimmy Howard on a penalty shot for a crucial insurance goal.
Crawford was brilliant in the third, finding the resilience and mental toughness that is now his hallmark, and the Hawks held on to win 4-3 after a last-minute goal by Damien Brunner put one more scare into them. Nothing came easy in this series.
Hjalmarsson can laugh about it now. Well, a little. But the half-inch-deep notch left in the wooden seat of his locker stall from the violent swing of his stick said it all.
Hjalmarsson had won the game — and the series — with a big slap shot from just inside the left circle with 1:47 left in Game 7. The United Center shook to its foundations, ‘‘Chelsea Dagger’’ played and the Hawks mobbed Hjalmarsson, maybe their unlikeliest offensive hero.
Then came confusion. Then chaos. Then anger — white-hot anger. Referee Stephen Walkom had called matching roughing minors for an exchange of shoves between Brandon Saad and Kyle Quincey far behind the play, and the goal was disallowed. The Hawks’ dressing room during the intermission was a mix of anger, denial and utter defiance.
‘‘A lot of commotion,’’ Quenneville said with a laugh.
Said Hjalmarsson: ‘‘I was angry and disappointed. I thought we won the series. But the series was still on the line. The whole season was on the line.’’
As the anger died, the defiance grew. Around the room, players started talking, fiery ‘‘Let’s go, Red’’ pep talks. Toews stood up and told everyone they’d win 3-1 in overtime. Three minutes and 35 seconds into the extra period, they did just that. Seabrook stepped into the biggest shot of his life, sending the Hawks to the Western Conference final and beyond, into their golden age.
The stick is framed, hanging on the wall of his basement. Seabrook sees it whenever he watches TV, a constant reminder of a shot — and a series — that changed the course of Hawks history.
‘‘It was a pretty cool moment in our season, in the playoffs, in my life,’’ Seabrook said. ‘‘We’ve been in a lot of big series and a lot of big games. We’ve been up, we’ve been down. All those experiences, you take them into new playoffs, new series, new seasons. It’s something you can look back on and lean on and know that, no matter what, we always have a chance.’’
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.