Blackhawks aim for history, Blues seek to avoid another first-round collapse in 'do or die' Game 7

— -- ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Blues forward  Troy Brouwer's experience is a microcosm of just how competitive the Stanley Cup playoffs have become.

When he takes the ice on Monday night for the showdown between his Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks, it will be the seventh consecutive playoff series Brouwer has played in that reached seven games.

"I know a lot about Game 7s," said Brouwer, who was a member of the the Blackhawks team that overcame a 3-0 series deficit against the  Vancouver Canucks to force a Game 7 in 2011. He was traded to the  Washington Capitals the next season and played in five more Game 7s in three seasons with the Caps.

Just don't ask Brouwer, who was traded to the Blues last July, how he's fared in those games. "Not the greatest record," he conceded.

Yes, Brouwer's teams have won just two of the previous six games, and he's had zero points in those games, but he knows what is ahead. He knows how fun, how intense, how pressure-filled Monday night's game is going to be. He also knows that this game tends to bring out the best in each player. And in a series that has seen ebbs and flows of greatness, with the Blackhawks and Blues each taking turns in that category, it sets up the potential for a classic. 

There's so much on the line for each team, aside from their season potentially ending.

For the Blackhawks, a loss would mean the end to their aspirations of becoming the first team in the salary-cap era to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. It would mean that all the guts they showed in pushing this series to seven games -- including scoring five unanswered goals in a 6-3 win in Game 6 on Saturday to force a winner-take-all finish -- are wiped out.

With the Los Angeles Kings eliminated and the Dallas Stars -- who had to hold off a furious rally by the  Minnesota Wild to win their first-round series -- showing signs of vulnerability, the Blackhawks have to see the path ahead through the Western Conference as theirs for the taking. A Game 7 win against the Blues would keep Chicago's hopes of a fourth Stanley Cup since 2010 alive as well and give the Blackhawks the opportunity to secure their place among the great teams in history, 

"This is the best time of the season," said Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook. "We don't want to go home yet."

No, usually this is the time of year where the Blackhawks are just getting started.

As for the Blues, the stakes are just as high. For some of them, perhaps even higher. St. Louis has been knocked out in the opening round in each of the past three seasons, including a 2014 six-game series against the Blackhawks that they led 2-0.

Given their inability to close out the Blackhawks in the past two games of this series, which they led 3-1 going into Game 5, the future of so many people closely associated with the team could hang in the balance of just one game.

Blues captain David Backes is an unrestricted free agent after this season, and both sides have indicated they'd like to make him the rare player who spends his entire NHL career with one team. But another first-round exit wouldn't reflect well on the captain and the cash it might take to keep him might be money Blues general manager Doug Armstrong wants to spend elsewhere.

The future of coach Ken Hitchcock is just as uncertain. He's on a one-year contract, and it might be hard to justify bringing him back with another first-round playoff loss, even though no other current coach has a better regular-season winning percentage than Hitchcock has had since taking over behind the bench for the Blues in November 2011.

On Sunday afternoon, he was asked what this one game might mean to his legacy in St. Louis.

"I've coached 40 years. My legacy is what I am," Hitchcock said. "Where I can help is the knowledge that I've had going through this before. I can really help these guys."

Brouwer also tried to help prepare his Blues teammates, who have played in a combined total of eight career Game 7s. That's one fewer than Chicago forward Marian Hossa has played in by himself.

On Sunday, Brouwer told them what to expect. He told his younger teammates what it's going to be like at home on the eve of the game, how families will be even more invested in this game than others in the series.

He reminded his teammates that the Blues must maintain their composure at all costs when things don't go their way at times in Game 7.

"We're going to have some fun with it," Brouwer said. "We've worked hard to put ourselves in a good spot this year, to hopefully knock off the defending champions in a Game 7."

It's a pep talk Chicago doesn't need. They have the advantage of having been here many times before. The Blackhawks have a comfort-level and experience advantage that St. Louis will have to overcome.

"When you play in more of them, you get -- comfortable's not the right word -- but you get not as nervous, I guess," said Seabrook, who scored the series-winning goal in overtime of a Game 7 that capped the Hawks' comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to the  Detroit Red Wings in 2013. "A Game 7 is a Game 7. It's do or die every shift."

It's been pretty much that way since the drop of the puck in Game 1. Now, a series that seemed destined to get to this point will reach its conclusion.

One of these teams will live on, and in doing so position itself as the new favorite to come out of the West.

"We've got to be excited about this challenge," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We put ourselves in an awful spot a little while ago. [Now] we've put ourselves exactly where we want to be."