SAN JOSE, Calif. - Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Evgeni Nabokov shouldered the brunt of the criticism for San Jose's past post-season failures.
It's only fitting that those three are the biggest reason why the Sharks are headed back to the Western Conference finals for the first time in six years. Thornton set up Marleau for the tiebreaking goal 6:59 into the third period and Nabokov bounced back from a Game 4 shellacking to help the Sharks eliminate the two-time defending Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings with a 2-1 victory Saturday night in Game 5 of their second-round series.
"It feels good," said Thornton, who scored the first goal for San Jose. "After kind of embarrassing ourselves with the 7-1 loss in Detroit we just wanted to bounce back. I thought we did a great job."
Post-season disappointments have been commonplace in recent years in San Jose. The Sharks have had the second-best record in the NHL the past five seasons, but hadn't made it past the second round in that span until now.
Three straight second-round losses were followed by a first-round defeat to Anaheim last season, raising questions about whether the core of Thornton, Marleau and Nabokov could lead the Sharks to the Stanley Cup.
San Jose is now halfway to that elusive title. The Sharks will play either Chicago or Vancouver in the conference finals. Marleau and Nabokov are the only players remaining from San Jose's only previous trip to the conference finals when the Sharks lost to Calgary in six games.
"It's definitely nice to get back there and be one step closer to winning the Cup," Marleau said.
Nabokov survived a blitz late in the second period to keep it tied at one. Marleau then came through with his second game-winning goal of this series when Thornton found him all alone in the slot and he beat Jimmy Howard.
The goal set off a raucous celebration at the Shark Tank. Marleau also scored in overtime to win Game 3, also off a feed from Thornton.
Thornton might finally be shedding the nickname "No Show Joe" by winning a gold medal in the Olympics and playing his best playoff series with the Sharks. He got his first goal of the post-season when he scored the winner in Game 2, started a third-period comeback with a goal in Game 3 and was involved in both of San Jose's goals in the clincher.
"That's great to see because we had some individuals that heading into the playoffs had to answer some questions," coach Todd McLellan said. "I think to this point they've done that."
Detroit is the only team better in the regular season than the Sharks since the start of the 2005-06 season and the Red Wings have been far better in the post-season. They eliminated the Sharks in the second round in 2007 and went to the last two Stanley Cup finals, winning it all in 2008.
Now a season that got off to a slow start because of injuries but seemed to be peaking at the right time has come to an early end for the Red Wings. Detroit fell behind 3-0 in this series before winning Game 4 at home 7-1 and putting up a good fight in the finale.
"The Sharks have been a very good team the past few years and they play smart," Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg said. "Every time you make the playoffs, you learn more and more and eventually you start playing better in the playoffs. They are playing smarter and they are playing more like a team."
Detroit seemed to have the momentum after dominating the second period and surviving a missed penalty shot by Joe Pavelski early in the third. But the Sharks battled back and got their fourth one-goal win of the series.
"They were better than us," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "They games were tight, but they found a way to continually win. That's what good teams do."
Detroit got its first goal early in the second when Brian Rafalski's point shot sneaked through to make it 1-0. Johan Franzen assisted on that goal, tying Gordie Howe's franchise record set in 1964 by recording a point in 12 straight playoff games.
Nabokov didn't allow anything else all game, finishing with 33 saves. He was at his best on a power play late in the second when he stopped a few tough deflections. Detroit couldn't get a good shot in the final minute even after Dan Boyle was sent off for holding with 52.2 seconds to go.
"It's hard to play against those guys," Nabokov said. "I don't think people expected us to win 4-1 but that's hockey."
Thornton tied it just seven seconds after Brad Stuart was sent off for elbowing Pavelski. The Sharks didn't get another shot off in the final 15:06 of the second period.
NOTES: Stuart played despite an injured knee that knocked him out of Game 4. ... San Jose D Niclas Wallin, who hadn't played since Game 1 of the first round for San Jose, returned from a lower body injury. ... Lidstrom played his 247th career playoff game, tying Patrick Roy for the second-most ever. Chris Chelios holds the record with 266.