SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The longest-tenured member of the San Jose Sharks put his team in the Western Conference Finals on Saturday night.
Patrick Marleau, who made his NHL debut with this club just four months after being drafted back in 1997, broke a 1-1 tie at 6:59 of the third period as the Sharks eliminated the Detroit Red Wings with a 2-1 victory in Game 5 of this Western Conference Semifinal at HP Pavilion.
San Jose will play the winner of the Vancouver-Chicago series, which is yet to be determined. The Blackhawks, the No. 2 seed in the conference, hold a 3-1 series lead and can advance with a win at home on Sunday night.
Joe Thornton, who, much like Marleau, has been criticized in recent seasons for coming up short at this time of year, scored San Jose's first goal and set up the game-winner as he found Marleau in the slot from behind the net, and the latter one-timed it past Jimmy Howard for his third goal of the playoffs and arguably the biggest of his 13-year career.
"I kind of caught him out of the corner of my eye getting the puck, and I was able to stop and find a spot," said Marleau, a 44-goal scorer during the regular season who now has four points in as many games. "He's going to make those passes all night, and it's up to me to get the shots off and find the back of the net."
The Red Wings, who avoided a sweep with a 7-1 victory in Detroit on Thursday, failed in their bid to reach Round 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth year in a row. They finished 5-7 this postseason and were 0-5 in one-goal games -- including all four losses in this series.
"A couple of mistakes here and there and not executing on our power play when we had opportunities," said captain Nicklas Lidstrom, whose Hall of Fame career may have come to an end on Saturday. "I thought that was the difference in this series."
San Jose came up huge in the final minute, as Dan Boyle was hit with a holding penalty with 51.5 seconds remaining. But the Red Wings failed to record a shot on goal and saw their season end against a team coached by Todd McLellan, who worked as an assistant under Wings coach Mike Babcock from 2005 until 2008, when they won a Stanley Cup together.
"You've got to take the emotions out of it," McLellan said. "I have a lot of friends and good memories on that team and will continue to. But when you start playing, the players ultimately decide it. It was fought between the 40 guys tonight, not necessarily the coaches."
The Sharks also became the first team this postseason to move into the conference finals. It's San Jose's second trip to the NHL's final four and first since 2004, when it lost to Calgary.
More importantly, though, the Sharks won't be making a second trip to Detroit, where Game 6 of this series would have been played on Monday.
"It feels good to be able to get a little more rest and not have to travel across the country," said Marleau, one of two Sharks remaining from that 2004 team.
Much to the delight of the capacity crowd of 17,562, Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov -- the other Shark left from 2004 -- bounced back in a big way with a 33-save performance. Nabokov was pulled after the first period in Game 4 after stopping only four of nine shots.
Fortunately for Nabokov, 19 of his teammates bounced back, too.
"It's very satisfying," Thornton said. "It shows the mental toughness of this team, to bounce back after losing a big one. (The Red Wings) have been the best hockey team in the last five years, in my opinion. They've dominated this whole League. They've gone to conference final after conference final and Stanley Cup appearances. As far as I'm concerned, they've been great for the last 20 years, actually."
Despite numerous chances on two power plays -- both penalties were on Game 4 hero Johan Franzen -- the Sharks failed to score during an opening period that saw them outshoot the Wings 10-1 after the first man advantage. Overall, San Jose outshot Detroit 15-6 in the first 20 minutes.
After weathering another brief storm early in the second period, the Red Wings grabbed a 1-0 lead when Brian Rafalski scored his third goal of the playoffs at 2:40. With the teams at even strength, Franzen muscled the puck from the right boards to the point to Rafalski, who took advantage of a screen in front set up by Todd Bertuzzi as he fired a slap shot past Nabokov.
"I thought once we got through the first period, I thought we'd win for sure," Babcock said. "We knew they were going to storm us early and we survived that. I thought our goaltending was good."
The assist gave Franzen points in all 12 of the Wings' playoff games this year.
But the Sharks wouldn't be denied on their third power play of the night, as Thornton tied the game at 4:54 of the second. Just six seconds after Brad Stuart -- who played despite suffering a sprained MCL on Thursday -- went off for elbowing, Jason Demers fired a wrister from the point that was denied by Howard. But Thornton -- who has nine points in his last six games -- picked up the rebound, toe-dragged the puck to get a better angle and lifted it into the net for his third goal of the playoffs.
"We couldn't be happier for him," McLellan said of Thornton. "He's one of the players who had to shed a reputation, whether fairly or not. He's done a real good job."
Just as Wings escaped the first period tied despite being outshot badly, the Sharks did the same in the second. They were outshot 14-3 but managed to head to the third with the score 1-1.
San Jose had a glorious opportunity 3:12 into the third period when Joe Pavelski was awarded a penalty shot after being hooked from behind by Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall. But Pavelski, who has been money this postseason, fired wide on the free breakaway as the game remained tied.
Less than four minutes later, Marleau untied it for good.
"They won 4 games to 1, so they were better than us," Babcock said. "The games were tight, but they found a way continually to win. That's what good teams do."
A good team that has pulled within eight victories of a championship it has craved since entering the National Hockey League in 1991.
"This is a very, very big win for our organization," McLellan said. "By no means is our task done or over."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL Shift of the Game: After winning a faceoff in the Red Wings' zone, Joe Thornton picked up the puck after Dany Heatley knocked it loose and quickly found Patrick Marleau. The longest-tenured Shark fired a one-timer from the slot that beat Jimmy Howard and gave the Sharks a 2-1 lead with 13:01 to play.
1 - 0 DET
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 SJS
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