SAN JOSE, Calif. (THE HOCKEY WRITERS) Take that, JR.
In a series that could only be described as epic, that had to go down to a Game 7, the Hockey Gods willed there could only be one outcome. Of course, the San Jose Sharks, who had “blown” a 3-games to 0 lead to an equally brilliant Detroit Red Wings team, would win Game 7 on home ice, and of course, the most maligned hockey player in North America, Patrick Marleau, would score the game-winning goal, for his first and only point of the series. Marleau had been called out on Versus by former teammate Jeremy Roenick, who called his Game 5 performance “gutless.”
17-year NHL veteran goalie Chris Osgood said after the game that the hockey world had just witnessed “the best seven-game series I’ve ever seen.”
Marleau, who not only jabbed home the game-winner while parked on the left post, certainly a “dirty goal”, but also made a hit on Patrick Eaves in the game’s final seconds, denying a 6-on-5 scoring chance to tie the game and clearing the puck for the final horn, didn’t seem too surprised at the outcome, or his contribution.
“You try to make the criticism into background noise,” Marleau said, “and focus on what you can control. I was just able to get my stick on Eaves and deflect the puck off at the end there.”
When asked whether scoring the game-winner, or denying the game-tying goal, gave him more satisfaction, Marleau said “It all feels good when the buzzer goes off.” Asked if this may finally silence the critics who insist the Sharks “can’t win the big one,” Marleau said with a smile, “This definitely was a “big one”. We’re going to take it all in for a little bit, but we still have not reached our goal, we have another month of hockey to play to get there.”
The Shark with the longest tenure summed it up thusly, “This was big. We would have like to finish the series earlier, but what a great series. There’s no quit over there (in the Detroit locker room), that’s for sure; we had to step up our game to win this.”
San Jose jumped out to a two-goal lead by the end of the first period. The wags in the press box noted that there was good news and bad news. The good news was, the Sharks had (another) two-goal lead. The bad news? They had twice as long as they needed to blow it.
Only, they didn’t follow that script.
Coach Todd McLellan said that he delivered a message to his players on Wednesday’s practice day. “There were two stories that all of you had written. It was up to us to determine which one you were going to send off (to publish). We wanted our players to play to the positive one; we could not play to the baggage of the negative one.”
Many Sharks thought that most of the hockey world was rooting for the Wings to complete a historic comeback. “I think,” McLellan said, “a lot of people watched this game. Sometimes, the casual fan hopes for the comeback. We were aware of it, but I thought we did a good job of eliminating that from our minds.”
Fans, bloggers, even “serious” writers, spilled a lot of digital ink over the past couple of days talking about how Detroit had stolen the momentum in the series, about how the Sharks would be playing with, to put it delicately, tight sphincters.
The players, in both locker rooms, would tell you that was just a bunch of hogwash. Sure, players will play head games with the other side, and suggest that collars are tightening, but the reality is, athletes in general, and elite competitors in particular, just don’t see it that way.
“I think, within a game, there is momentum,” said defenseman Dan Boyle. “At least, for me, I go to bed pretty upset after a loss, but in the morning you wake up and you try to turn the page. I understand why people say that. During a game, yes, but during a series, no, no momentum at all.”
San Jose is now 5-2 all-time in games 7, including a pair of final-game wins over the Red Wings, 17 years apart.
San Jose scored first, on the power play, highlighting their special teams in this game. The Sharks were 1-for-3 on the power play, while the Red Wings were 0-for-4 with the man advantage, including one in the final five minutes of play.
Joe Thornton threaded a perfect pass to Devin Setoguchi from behind the net. Setoguchi one-timed it past Howard to put the Sharks on the board at 12:20 of the first period.
“As a coach,” said McLellan, “you never want to say it in case it doesn’t work out, but I thought that first goal was big, it kept the crowd in the game.”
But it was probably the second goal that turned the tide. Logan Couture did his best Pavel Datsyuk impression, taking the puck right off the stick of Henrik Zetterberg and slapping home a goal in the final minute of the first period. The Sharks had surrendered in-game momentum several times in the series by allowing late-period goals; on this night, the strategy worked in their favor.
“Perhaps the biggest goal,” said McLellan, “was the Logan couture steal at the end of the period, to get us to that two-level and make us feel good.”
But the Sharks played tight in the second period. Detroit carried the play for the entire period, out-shooting San Jose 17-6 and scoring when Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula broke out as part of a 3-on-2 odd-man rush. Filppula dropped the puck to Zetterberg, who carried it into the slot and slammed home a backhand goal at 13:10 of the period to halve the deficit.
The Sharks fended off the rest of the Red Wing flurry and were fortunate to leave the ice with the lead after two.
“We took a breather,” said Marleau of the intermission.”They came hard at us in the second. We were up a goal in the third period of game seven, that’s a good position to be in.”
McLellan said he told his team not to be afraid to make mistakes, to loosen up and play their game for the final 20 minutes. “If we make a mistake, we will live with it, but be aggressive,” said McLellan.
And so, the clock wound down to 7:27, and there was a flurry around the net. Setoguchi took a shot, and the rebound dropped in front of Marleau at the left post, who saw and empty net and filled it.
At that moment, the question was “how long will it take Detroit to answer?” The consensus was: less than two minutes. And less than two minutes it was. 1:46 after Marleau again put the Sharks up by two goals, Detroit scored when Pavel Datsyuk scored on a great individual effort, flipping a backhander that either tipped off the butt of Niemi’s stick, or flicked the crossbar, and dropped over the goal line. 6:01 of nail-biting remained.
Niemi played stellar throughout the series, making 38 stops in the finale to propel the Sharks to the Conference Finals for a second straight year, this time against Vancouver. Game one will be in Canada at 5 pm Pacific Time Sunday, May 15.
“I’ll start thinking about them as soon as I get off the podium,” McLellan said. “For the first time, we will be the underdogs in a series, and maybe that will let us play a little looser and more free.”
One thing hockey fans can be sure of: however this next series turns out, it will be hard-pressed to stand up to the one just concluded, which was one for the ages. Even the Hanson Brothers were cheering both teams at the end.