By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) Stephen Walkom owes Brent Seabrook a beer. And a steak. And maybe even his well being.
Who knows what would have happened to the former NHL director of officiating after he whistled matching roughing calls on Kyle Quincey and Brandon Saad nanoseconds before Niklas Hjalmarsson rifled a shot past Jimmy Howard that appeared to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead with 1:49 left in regulation Wednesday night.
Hjalmarsson was on the other end of the ice celebrating. The United Center was in a frenzy.
And then Chelsea Dagger stopped cold.
No one had heard Walkom’s whistle, but he blew the play dead after Saad had been thrown into the boards along the Red Wings’ bench and landed on the ice. Matching minors. Roughing.
A goal literally taken off the scoreboard.
In typical Game 7 fashion, the referees swallowed their whistles for most of the night. Multiple roughing calls could have been called throughout the game, but the refs let them play.
Until, of course, the most critical moment of the game.
The replays showed Saad nearly landing in the Red Wings’ bench. He grabbed onto the back of Quincey’s neck to regain his balance and then was thrown to the ice. From the seat of his pants, he threw a jab at Quincey that barely connected.
But the worst part was that the exchange near the bench had absolutely no bearing on what was going on elsewhere in the zone, where Hjalmarsson was winding up for what should have been the game winner.
“I went blank,” Hjalmarsson said. “I got so mad … I almost threw my stick up there in the crowd.”
Who could blame him?
“I was probably looking like a fool celebrating in the middle of the ice,” he added.
No, Niklas, the only one looking like a fool was Walkom, who nearly almost sent the wrong team to the Western Conference Finals.
But given that Brent Seabrook saved him with a game-winner that actually counted 3:35 into overtime, Walkom will probably skate onto another ice surface near you soon.
Of course, since he’s an NHL official, he would have done that anyway. How do we know that? Well, Walkom happens to be the referee who chose not to call Raffi Torres for any kind of penalty when he assaulted Marian Hossa in the playoffs last year. Walkom was staring right at the hit and let it go, even as Hossa was taken to a local hospital and suffered from post-concussion symptoms for months.
The NHL responded by sending Walkom to Game 7 of the Bruins-Capitals series. That, despite the fact that the league ended up suspending Torres 25 games, essentially admitting that Walkom indeed blew the call.
In sports, players get cut, coaches get fired and referees/umpires almost never have to answer for their mistakes.
And thanks to Seabrook, Walkom likely won’t have to this time either.
The matching minors were only matching by definition. The call gave the Red Wings all the momentum during a frenzied 1:49 of 4-on-4 hockey at the end of the third period.
“I think that was a stretch there where you just don’t want to go for an exchange of high quality chances,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said.
And yet there were a couple of good chances for the Wings before the horn went off to signal a much needed intermission.
“I was pretty upset there for a while so for me personally it was good to have a breather,” Hjalmarsson said.
The intermission before overtime gave the Hawks a chance to regroup. Captain Jonathan Toews addressed the team with encouragement as the rest of the United Center remained stunned.
“(Emotions) were as high as they could be,” Toews said. “That was an emotional game. The guys poured everything out there.”
They certainly did after the break. And three and half minutes in, Seabrook found himself with the puck and open ice after Dave Bolland laid a hit on Gustav Nyquist and the puck squirted out. Niklas Kronwall went for the block, allowing Seabrook to beat Howard to his left.
“I just wanted to try to get it past (Kronwall) and on net so I could change,” Seabrook said.
The United Center went into another frenzy. And this time, Chelsea Dagger did not get interrupted. The Blackhawks are headed to the Western Conference Finals to face the Kings after completing a 3-1 series comeback against the Red Wings.
Meanwhile, Walkom was able to sneak off to the locker room without a security detail.
“Good game, guys,” former Chicago Bulls superstar Scottie Pippen told the referees in the tunnel as they walked by. Pippen, of course, is no stranger to controversial calls in the final moments of a playoff game. He was famously called for a debatable foul by referee Hue Hollins with 2.1 seconds left in Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks. The foul cost the Bulls the game and they ended up losing the series in seven games.
It was hard to tell if Pippen was being genuine, but even if he wasn’t, that comment didn’t compare to the criticism Walkom would have received if the Red Wings went on to win that game.
Remember when Steve Bartman needed to be escorted out of Wrigley Field?
At least this time the ire would have been directed at the right guy.
Yeah, Walkom owes Seabrook a lot more than a beer.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHoge and read more of his columns here.