DETROIT -- In a Western Conference Semifinal series that's been eerily similar to the one a year ago between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, Friday night's Game 4 could've continued the trend.
Instead, the Sharks didn't buckle like they did a year ago, when Detroit walloped them 7-1 at Joe Louis Arena. This time, San Jose stemmed a potential blowout by fighting back from a 3-0 first-period deficit and lost a close one 4-3 on a late goal by Darren Helm.
Just as they were 365 days prior, the Sharks are headed back to San Jose for Sunday night's Game 5 at HP Pavilion leading the series 3-1 and looking to oust the Red Wings from the playoffs for a second straight season. Unlike last year, they're not making the long flight while licking their wounds.
"We fought," said Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, whose second-period marker cut Detroit's lead to 3-2 and made it a game again. "We certainly fought and got a big goal at the end of the first period. Got one in the second and got one in the third. We just needed to show a bit more poise coming out of the gate early and it probably cost us the game."
Those three early Red Wings goals had this game all set up for a Detroit remake of last season's Game 4 rout. It certainly had that same feel, especially after Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom scored his second goal of the period and fourth of the series to put his team up 3-0 with just 1:59 left in the first.
Instead, Logan Couture gave the Sharks new life just 15 seconds later -- after his sharp-angle shot that he flipped at the Red Wings net from just above the goal-line snuck between Jimmy Howard and the left post to make it 3-1 Detroit. Ryane Clowe assisted in that one and also had helpers on San Jose's next two goals, as Boyle scored at 13:44 of the second and Dany Heatley tied it 3-3 just 1:14 into third.
At that point, much of the life was sucked out of Joe Louis Arena and Red Wings fans were getting that same old feeling they'd had in seven previous one-goal losses to the Sharks in the past two postseasons -- all decided by scores of 2-1 or 4-3.
By the time the Sharks got a pair of power plays on penalties to Todd Bertuzzi and Justin Abdelkader in the first half of the third, it seemed almost like a foregone conclusion that San Jose would again find a way to come out on top. The fact Helm changed the trend was beside the point for San Jose coach Todd McLellan -- who's happy his team is still up two games heading back home after two performances that he considers sub-par.
"I like the fact that we were resilient when we weren't playing real well," McLellan said. "We found a way to claw our way back into it. Early in the game and even in the second period, we didn't have our legs. Detroit won a lot of races to loose pucks. They deserve full marks for the win. They were the better team. We have to regroup."
They also feel the urge to end this series as they did a year ago, in Game 5 on home ice.
None of the Sharks is real keen on the idea of making the long flight back to Detroit for a potential Game 6, not to mention having to deal with the boost of momentum that scenario would give Detroit.
"I'm not happy with the split," Boyle said. "I don't think anybody here is. We all wanted to win tonight and, you know, now they've got momentum going on their side. We need to get back to work and use our home ice to our advantage and get back to starting quickly and playing well."
Goalie Antti Niemi, who made 36 saves on 40 shots, echoed those sentiments. After sweeping the Sharks in the West finals while starting in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks last season, he knows firsthand how important it is to end a series when you've got the chance.
"We just want to win as soon as possible," Niemi said. "You don't want to take any chances. Just win the next game."
Detroit won the faceoff battle this time (52 percent) and also outhit the Sharks 29-17 while outshooting them 40-28. However, Clowe said the Sharks have nothing to be embarrassed about. They came to the Motor City, got a split of the two games and now head home knowing they made the Red Wings sweat out their only win.
"It wasn't a heart-breaking loss," said Clowe, who finished with a plus-3 rating. "It wasn't like we blew a lead or anything. They scored at the end of the game and they deserved to win. They were better. They probably deserved to win (Game 3), but you know what -- we came back tonight and kept going. Give them credit. They're a good team, but we'll be better."