Sunday May 9th, 2010

Somewhere between Detroit and San Jose, the beleaguered Sharks located the composure they'd lost during Thursday's 7-1 thrashing.

And with it they found a ticket to the Western Conference final.

After spotting the Wings the first goal in Game 5, an event that might have sent previous San Jose squads into a tizzy, the new attitude Sharks rebounded with a pair of their own -- including Patrick Marleau's winner at 6:59 of the third -- to take the pivotal contest 2-1 and the series four games to one.

The Sharks have been saying all along that this is a different team. That all the adversity they'd faced while building up a rep as perhaps the greatest underachievers in North American sports had toughened them mentally, had prepared them to exorcise the demons of the past four seasons. That they could put that Game 4 disaster behind them because this was their time.

But talk, as they say, is cheap. And after those years of bitter disappointment, the hockey world was looking for something a little more concrete than locker room platitudes.

So when they failed to capitalize on a dominant first period, those little doubts reappeared. And when Brian Rafalski struck early in the second, part of an assault that saw the Wings outshoot the reeling Sharks 14-3 in the frame, there were plenty of hands being wrung at the Shark Tank.

And then this team did something that previous San Jose teams could not: they came back. Just like they had in Game 3, a contest in which they trailed 3-1, and in Game 2, when they tallied twice in the third to win.

Maybe they were right all along. Maybe this team is different.

Because these Sharks aren't just deeper, faster and more resilient than their bumbling predecessors. They're blessed with the one weapon those teams lacked: production from their biggest stars.


Of all people, it was Joe Thornton who started the comeback Saturday night with a second period power play goal, his third of the series. Jumbo initiated the play by winning the draw, then charged directly to the front of the net where he fished a loose puck out of the skates of Dany Heatley, executed a nifty little toe drag to evade the glove hand of Jimmy Howard, then slipped it into the gaping cage for the equalizer. Amazing what can happen when you go to the net.

"We couldn't be happier for him," coach Todd McLellan said afterward. "He's one of the players who had to shed a reputation, whether fairly or not."

Not that he's gassed that rep after one series, but Thornton continued down the path to redemption in the third. With Heatley on his tail behind the Detroit net, Rafalski blindly threw a pass along the wall. The puck landed directly on Thornton's tape, but was there just a fraction of a second before he found Marleau alone in the slot. Another fraction later and the former captain scored the eventual game-winner. All told, the trio of Thornton, Heatley and Marleau combined for seven goals and 19 points over the five games. Give GM Doug Wilson credit for his patience. The thought of blowing it up had to cross his mind last summer, but he remained patient. Looks like a pretty good decision now, eh?

And then there was Evgeni Nabokov, who rebounded from the embarrassment of his 20-minute performance in Game 4 by stopping 33 of 34 Detroit shots to seal the win. This was Nabby at his best, battling through the heavy traffic in the crease and rarely giving the Wings a second sniff. He was dynamite towards the end of the second when he was forced to deal with a couple of redirects in close, including a Johan Franzen deflection that he somehow blocked with his shoulder.

Cup-worthy goaltending? Sure looked like it, especially in the final minutes as the Wings went into full-on desperation mode (a little too late) in an effort to tie it up.

The inability to channel that desperation earlier had to make this a bitterly disappointing loss for the Red Wings, who'd advanced to the Stanley Cup final each of the past two seasons and were favored by many to make it three in a row.

No doubt there'll be some wondering if things might have been different if Douglas Murray had been caught throwing a vicious elbow into the mush of Franzen just prior to Marleau's winner. Of course, while anyone complaining about that missed call might want to think back earlier in the period when Brad Stuart nearly took off Murray's head with a forearm shiver, or later to when Franzen took justice into his own hands with an elbow to Murray's head -- both infractions missed by the refs.

It was a hard luck loss for Howard, who vindicated himself with another strong effort, especially in the first when the Sharks controlled the play and generated a number of high quality chances. And for Franzen, whose assist on Rafalski's goal gave him a point in all 12 of the team's games this spring, tying the club record set by Gordie Howe back in 1964. And for Nicklas Lidstrom, who is said to be considering hanging them up for good this summer but who still looks like he can be a top-10 defender in the league for another five years.

But the Wings knew it wasn't going to be easy winning three straight against one of the best teams in hockey. Worn down by a tough seven-game series against the Coyotes and unable to make any hay on the power play, they just didn't have enough gas left to extend the series to a sixth game.

Ultimately, Mike Babcock was spot on when he said the Sharks were the better team. "The games were tight, but they continually found a way to win. That's what good teams do."

The Sharks will have to be a whole lot better than good if they want to finish kicking those demons to the curb. After all, no team has won the Cup with eight wins since 1967. And no one remembers a team that loses in the conference final.

But there's something about these Sharks, isn't there? For the first time, there's reason to believe.

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