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Game 7 heightens Sharks-Wings playoff rivalry

by David Kalan
In more than a cursory glance of recent NHL history, you'd be hard-pressed to find two franchises that have known more regular season success than Detroit and San Jose. The Sharks, who won their fourth consecutive Pacific Division title this season, have missed the playoffs just once since 1998, while the Wings, they of the four Stanley Cups since 1997, are well-documented as the sport's most decorated team since Gretzky's Oilers.

But with the two franchises facing off in what is certain to be a historic Game 7 in San Jose, Thursday could very well be the next chapter in what is developing into one of the League's best postseason rivalries. Because Detroit and San Jose play in different divisions, regular-season and geographic tension hasn't built on the same level it might between the Red Wings and Blackhawks. However, with the Wings and Sharks meeting for the third time in the past five postseasons, there is evidence familiarity is starting to breed contempt.

Given the remarkable nature of tonight's Game 7, in which the Red Wings will attempt to become the fourth team in NHL history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit to win, this rivalry is certain to take on a higher stature in League lore. Detroit and San Jose have already combined for their fair share of big moments in five postseason meetings stretching back nearly two decades, including, most prominently, one of the greatest upsets in League history in 1994.

How different were Detroit and San Jose when they met in the first round that season? Well, the Wings hadn't yet won a Stanley Cup in their current championship era, but they were making their ninth playoff appearance in the previous 11 years. Many assumed the top-seeded Wings were on a collision course with the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers, and if any team was going to stop them, surely it wasn't going to be the upstart Sharks. San Jose was making its first postseason appearance in franchise history, and while doing so in just its third season of existence was no small feat, the Sharks still had a losing record in the 1993-94 regular season, and had come off a year before in which they lost an absurd 71 of 84 games. In fact, 1994 marked the first time in its history San Jose didn't lead the League in losses.

But as the old mantra goes, anything can happen in a Game 7. San Jose getting there may have been the most surprising part. After the Sharks stunned Joe Louis Arena with a 5-4 win in Game 1, Detroit took the next two games before San Jose won Game 4 and then pulled off another key win at the Joe, 6-4, in Game 5. Pushed to the brink, the Wings responded with a dominating 7-1 victory in San Jose to force a Game 6, but as Game 7 entered the late stages still tied at 2-2, the opportunity for a bad bounce or mishap to turn the tide became ripe. Chris Osgood's attempted clear around the boards with 7:35 remaining was snagged by the Sharks' Jamie Baker, a man who finished his career with all of 71 goals, and fired into the net, giving San Jose the decisive tally in a 3-2 win.

Detroit got a measure of revenge in the Western Conference Semifinals a year later, sweeping the Sharks out of the 1995 playoffs, but that 1994 upset is still one of the high points for San Jose as it continues to seek its first Cup despite being one of the preeminent teams in the League over the past decade. The Red Wings could pull off a series win nearly as shocking tonight, not due to the Sharks' being a markedly better team but because of the overwhelming odds facing a team in a 3-0 hole.

This series has been nothing but one tense outcome after another with five of the six games decided by just one goal -- and the mere outlier a two-goal game that included an empty-netter. In fact, this series is eerily reminiscent of the five-game set the two teams played a year ago, in which the Sharks won four of the five games by a single tally. Tonight's Game 7 seems likely to be another tight battle, one that will end another chapter in San Jose and Detroit's postseason history.

It will be just the eighth time a team has forced Game 7 after a 3-0 deficit and while the odds favor San Jose for winning those first three games, they do so barely as the team with an initial 3-0 edge has won four of the seven previous instances. With such a slim amount of evidence and a slim margin for error, predicting the outcome is likely not worth the energy. After all, as they say, anything can happen.

Just ask Jamie Baker.
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