By Stu Hackel
Vancouver wanted that series to go the distance and got its wish. But should the Canucks be careful what they wish for? The Red Wings are already banged up and could be spent should they overcome the Sharks' 3-0 lead and become only the fourth team in NHL history to do so. But if Detroit wins on Thursday night, will the Wings have shown themselves to be a team that just will not die, regardless of the adversity it faces?
San Jose would mean easier travel if it squeaks by in Game 7, and the Sharks appear to be playing worse as the series goes on. But if this team wins, it will be a mirror image of the Canucks themselves, playing with the confidence of knowing it finally can win the big, pressure-packed game, just as Vancouver did in Game 7 against the Blackhawks in the first round (a series that now feels like it was played last year, not a couple of weeks ago).
The Canucks don't get to choose, of course. But if they did, it would not be an easy pick.
For the eighth time in Stanley Cup play, a team has forced a seventh game after trailing 3-0. It's the second time this spring and only once before has it happened twice during the same postseason: in 1975, when the Islanders came back to eliminate the Penguins and then tie the Flyers in the next round only to lose Game 7 to the eventual Cup champions. When you add the Flyers' comeback last spring against the Bruins, that makes three times in two years. Is that a fluke or is it indicative of something more?
Sports Illustrated's Pierre McGuire thinks it's something more. Speaking on Ottawa radio Team 1200 Wednesday morning (audio), he said, "It's not a fluke at all. The red line coming out (of the NHL game) allows teams to come from behind, zero tolerance on obstruction allows teams to generate offense off the forecheck; off the rush; and, in slot area presence, teams get to the net easier because obviously you don't have as much obstruction, crosschecking, hooking, and holding. So that opens up a lot of opportunities to generate tip shots, rebound opportunities, screening on the goaltenders.
"So you just put those three things into perspective. When a team used to have a lead, the red line was their boundary. You could play the 1-2-2, you could hook, you could hold, you could shut people down and basically the team with the lead was going to win. If you had a lead after 40 minutes and it was more than one goal, you were winning. And most of the time, if it was one goal, you were winning. You don't see that any more. And that's the beauty of the new game. That teams can come from behind and win because nobody is obstructing or hooking or holding and you can be stretched out, because there's no red line."
Tuesday's Game 6 was a tour-de-force for the Red Wings, who dominated every facet of the game from the outset, their forwards especially outshining the Sharks defensemen. Only the play of Sharks goalie Antti Niemi prevented the Wings from putting this one away early, and even after San Jose took the lead and got a short-lived boost in momentum, the Wings ultimately responded with a furious finish, owning the puck for much of the last 13 or so minutes of regulation and keeping the Sharks under attack. It resulted in two goals and an empty-netter.
Again, as SI.com's Adrian Dater pointed out in his postgame analysis, it was The Pavel Datsyuk Show as the Wings on-ice wizard continued to play better with one hand than most mortal NHLers do with two. While his backhanded pass to Valtteri Filppula is the only thing that may show up on the score sheet...
...Datsyuk made things happen all night. But he was not alone in excelling for Detroit. Filppula played a strong game, as his intelligent route to the net on that goal indicates. The Sharks' problem when Datsyuk is on the ice is not just Datsyuk, but also the Red Wings who are there with him. Datsyuk can't shoot well with his injury, but he still can make amazing passes, so the Wings without the puck become more dangerous. If they are covered, he can't get them the puck, but Filppula managed to skate to freedom and that made all the difference.
Credited with Detroit's first goal (video), Henrik Zetterberg now seems healthy and, we tend to forget, is nearly Datsyuk's equal in talent -- as well as a former Conn Smythe Trophy-winner. He has also had a strong series, though he was not as dominant in the face-off circle on Tuesday as he was in Game 5.
Niklas Kronwall, who scored a big goal in Game 5 and shot the puck that Zetterberg tipped in, can't be overlooked. He is playing more minutes on defense than Nick Lidstrom (which helps keep the 41-year-old captain fresh) and is having a huge impact defensively (like his great first period play coming up from behind Dan Boyle, who had a breakaway coming out of the penalty box, lifting Boyle's stick and preventing him from getting a shot off). And Kronwall's physical play is often a factor. His hit on Ryane Clowe in Game 5...
...may or may not have been the cause of Clowe's absence from the Sharks' lineup on Tuesday night (the Sharks deny it), but regardless, Kronwall is an intimidating presence on the Detroit blueline.
Clowe's status for Game 7 is unknown, but without him, the Sharks were not the same team. He's not just their leading playoff scorer (four goals, nine assists), he's a rugged winger who does lots of the dirty work that helps win pucks and games. His injury forced coach Todd McLellan to juggle his lines on Tuesday night, and perhaps that was a cause of some of San Jose's uncertain play. As David Pollok mentioned in the San Jose Mercury-News, McLellan had kept his lines together for most of the last six weeks after mixing them up regularly during most of the season, believing that injuries in the playoffs force adjustments. He wanted his forwards to be able to work in any combination.
"Nobody, tonight, when we hit the ice, is going to say, 'Aw, I don't have any chemistry with this guy' because we've played with each other quite a bit this year," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said to Pollok before the game. "No excuses." If that's not the reason, the Sharks need another explanation for their play in Game 6. They couldn't generate any sustained pressure in Detroit's end and they were chasing the game much of the evening.
"The performance tonight was disappointing," McLellan said afterward (video), doing his best to hide his distress. "I thought one team skated, the other team did not skate at all, and that was pretty evident right through the first two periods. We started to find some legs in the third, but we were fortunate our goaltender even gave us a chance to be remotely involved in the game in the third period."
You have to wonder now if the Sharks have reached their limit or will they be able to find another gear for Game 7? When questioned about the play of Patrick Marleau, so often the target of criticism for the Sharks' playoff failures, McLellan broadened his answer to include the whole team, challenging them all, and rightly so.
"We need him to play effectively shift in and shift out," said McLellan. "I think there's more there. I know he believes there's more there. We've got to find a way to get it out of him. And he gets an opportunity. He's going to have the stage now. A lot of our players will have the stage in Game 7. And, uh, learned a lot of lessons along the way. Been taught a lot of lessons along the way. And the stage will be theirs.
"It's an opportunity for them to answer the bell."