Every time San Jose's loud, loyal fans seem to want to buy what their Sharks are selling, they get stuck with a bill of goods.
This Western semifinal series was all but over on Sunday night, the Sharks up two goals on a wheezing the Red Wings after Logan Couture's goal 54 seconds into the third period.
Many of the Wings' top players were dinged up, with center Pavel Datsyuk clearly bothered by a hand/wrist injury. Thousands of white towels waved in the HP Pavilion air, with white flags from Detroit seemingly not far behind.
So what happened? The Sharks tanked it at The Tank, that's what. Oh, and Datsyuk was brilliant -- that's the word that fits -- in leading the Wings right back into this series with a stirring 4-3 victory. The Sharks are now halfway to blowing a 3-0 lead, which would be the fourth such instance in NHL history. We almost saw the fourth occurrence in the first round with Vancouver letting Chicago up off the mat, and right now the Sharks have to
Datsyuk stealing the puck from Sharks veteran Patrick Marleau and making a shake-and-bake move before finding Nick Lidstrom at the point, where the ageless Swede blasted the puck on net, was a thing of beauty. From there, Tomas Holmstom did what he does -- tipping the puck by the suddenly jittery Antti Niemi for the game-winner with 6:08 left.
The Wings can extend the series to a seventh game with a win at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday night.
As great as Detroit's comeback was, it was also a classic collapse by San Jose ... and Marleau deserves the first finger of blame. Not only was he careless with the puck along the boards in his own zone -- leading to Datsyuk's steal on the game-winner -- he was lazy on the backcheck during Daniel Cleary's tying goal at 5:29.
Cleary circled the net and was allowed to casually keep jabbing at a loose puck while Marleau coasted in. Versus analyst Jeremy Roenick -- a former teammate of Marleau's -- may have created a story after the game with a savage verbal blast.
Roenick called it a "gutless, gutless performance" and also pointed toward his heart when describing where Marleau was "hurt." Yikes.
Dany Heatley deserves blame, too. Right after Couture made it 3-1, Heatley took a high-sticking penalty, then was late getting back to the net after coming out of the box on Jonathan Ericsson's rebound goal. Detroit's Justin Abdelkader took a foolish penalty himself, high-sticking Dan Boyle with 5:05 left, but the Sharks still seemed dazed by Datsyuk and Co.'s late charge and didn't get a lot on goalie Jimmy Howard (39 saves).
Detroit remains in a hole, of course, and may have to play Game 6 without power forward Johan Franzen, who coach Mike Babcock said "tweaked" his injured ankle and didn't play in the third.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan now must convince his team that it's still in good shape as far as the series goes, but he must be feeling plenty of trepidation deep down. He was an assistant on the Wings team that won the Stanley Cup in 2008, and he knows probably too well how tough Detroit can be when it starts feeling good about itself.
He has also been behind the Sharks' bench the last two years, when sudden playoff disappointments occurred just as things seemed to be at their brightest.
The Sharks may yet advance to their second straight conference final in Games 6 or 7 -- but this will forever be known as the one that got away if it all goes badly from here.