SAN JOSE, Calif. -- All that talk of the Sharks losing four straight after taking the first three games of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings?
On the precipice of becoming a footnote in one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, the Sharks came through in Game 7, holding off the Red Wings 3-2 in front of 17,562 raucous fans at HP Pavilion on Thursday night.
Logan Couture, who scored for a fourth consecutive game in the series, described the series that featured six one-goal games and a two-goal game that only reached that number because of an empty-net goal.
"Best series I've ever been a part of," Couture said. "By far."
If the Sharks had any nervousness about becoming only the fourth team in NHL history to lose a series after leading 3-0, it didn't show for a moment on Thursday. They dominated puck possession for much of the night, were strong in their own zone and were crisp from the time the puck was dropped until the final horn.
Devin Setoguchi's sixth goal of the playoffs and fifth of the series gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead midway through the first period. Couture made it 2-0 with 59 seconds left in the period, and unlike in Game 5 when they immediately allowed a goal after taking a two-goal lead, the Sharks didn't relax and allow the Red Wings to respond quickly.
Patrick Marleau scored with 7:47 remaining in the third period -- his first point in the series -- to give the Sharks some much-needed breathing room.
It turned out to be the series-winner when Pavel Datsyuk cut the lead back down to a goal less than two minutes later and set up a furious finish.
Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi improved to 6-0 lifetime in playoff series by making 38 saves and surviving surges by the Wings in the final two periods. His counterpart, Jimmy Howard, made 27 saves in what was his seventh solid performance in the series.
"You know, it stinks," a disappointed Howard said. "We put in another great effort tonight. Tonight they found a way to win. They got off to a great start. We knew that coming into this building that they were going to be fired up, they were going to be ready to go. It's tough when you're playing behind in this league."
The Sharks will face the Vancouver Canucks -- who won their first-round series in seven games after going up 3-0 against the Chicago Blackhawks -- in the Western Conference Finals, which get under way Sunday night at Rogers Arena (8 p.m. ET, Versus, CBC, RDS).
"We'll start working on Vancouver tonight," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We'll enter the series against Vancouver as an underdog -- maybe a little pressure will be taken off us."
The Sharks were buoyed by the return of leading scorer Ryane Clowe, who missed Game 6 with an upper-body injury. Clowe didn't register a point in 19:26 of ice time, but his presence allowed McLellan to go back to the line combinations that worked so well during the final half of the season.
After going 0-for-10 on the power play in the previous three games, the Sharks rose to the occasion on their first chance with the man advantage in Game 7.
Setoguchi was the beneficiary of a pinpoint pass from Joe Thornton, who spotted him all alone in the left circle, and a coverage mistake by Detroit's Darren Helm. Setoguchi did what he does best, one-timing a shot past Howard to make it 1-0 at 12:20 of the first period.
"The difference is our power-play goal and our penalty kill," McLellan said, referring to his team killing off all four Red Wings' power-play chances. "He's found a way to score some timely goals. He has an important goal on the power play. He had a much better second half (of the season). He was much more committed to his game and he came a long way. We're starting to see that in the playoffs."
With the period winding down, the Sharks grabbed a 2-0 lead after a surprising giveaway by Zetterberg near his own net.
Zetterberg wasn't under much pressure as he circled out in front of the net, but the puck slid off his stick and right to Couture, who didn't hesitate to fire a quick shot that beat a surprised Howard high to the short side with 59 seconds left in the first period.
The Sharks entered Game 7 with all the pressure of the world on their shoulders, but they played an inspired first 20 minutes. They outshot the Red Wings 17-11 and controlled the play territorial throughout most of the period.
"We gave up the power-play goal, and I thought they took over for the rest of the first period," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "We pushed the issue though, and got back in it, to say the least. Their goaltender was outstanding. We had 40 shots on net, they blocked another 25. That says we had a lot of rubber going their way."
Zetterberg atoned for his mistake at 13:10 of the second period, flipping a backhand shot past the blocker of Niemi to make it 2-1. The goal came off a 3-on-2 rush that was started by a bad pass by Clowe in the Sharks' zone. Valtteri Filppula snapped a cross-ice pass to Zetterberg, who made no mistake with the golden opportunity.
Couture came within inches of giving the Sharks back a two-goal lead in the opening minute of the third period. He rang a shot off the far post while on a 2-on-1 with Dany Heatley, who couldn't corral the hard rebound.
Torrey Mitchell had a chance as well minutes later, but Howard beat him to the post on a wraparound try.
The Red Wings were given a chance to tie the game on a power play midway through the third period when the Sharks were whistled for having too many men on the ice. The Red Wings had a couple of chances, but the 5-on-4 situation may be best remembered for Dan Boyle's thunderous hit on Tomas Holmstrom that drove him into the net and onto his backside.
Seconds later, the power play came to an end when Niklas Kronwall was whistled for slashing Marleau.
The subsequent 4-on-4 and brief power play didn't net anything for the Sharks, but they got an insurance goal with both teams at even strength.
Boyle threaded a perfect pass to a cutting Setoguchi, who had his shot stopped by Howard. But the rebound came to rest at the skates of Marleau, who stuffed home what turned out to be the game-winning goal at 12:13 of the third period.
"We obviously believe in him immensely," McLellan said of Marleau, who had been under fire for his lack of scoring – he had no points in the series and had never had a goal in a Game 6 or 7 of a playoff series. "For him to end up with the winning goal is special. -- for our team and for him. I think the monkey will be off his back, and he'll be even than much better in the next series."
That goal turned out to be huge, as Datsyuk responded 1:46 later with a brilliant backhander from the right circle that caught the far top corner to make it a one-goal game once again.
The Red Wings had a chance to tie it on a power play with five minutes remaining, but the Sharks were up to the challenge -- leaving the Wings to head home and wonder what might have been.
"We've got to give them credit,"Babcock said of the Sharks, who eliminated the Wings in the conference semis for the second straight spring. "They're a good team. It was a good series. It was entertaining, it was fast, it was hard for any team to lead the other one. It was just one of those series. It was good.”
Of his own team, Babcock had no complaints – only disappointment in coming up a goal short.
"I'm pleased with the effort," he said. "I'm pleased with the growth of our young players. Our high-end forwards, Datsyuk and Zetterberg, were fantastic in this series and showed great leadership qualities.
"You're disappointed because you think in your mind you're winning for sure and moving on and having an opportunity in Vancouver. I thought the team that came out of this series would have a real shot at winning. You get very few chances to win, and you have to make good on your opportunities."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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