Call it a near-sudden-death experience. It was halfway through the final period of Game 7 of the opening-round series between the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings, and players on both teams were squeezing the sap out of their sticks. There had been no goals scored and few risks taken since early in the second period. Now the players—and the 19,875 fans in Joe Louis Arena—sensed that the next goal would win the series.
How fitting that it was bagged by San Jose's Jamie Baker, whose fortunes so closely mirror those of his up-from-the-ashes team. A year ago the 27-year-old Baker was subjected to one of the most humbling experiences an NHL player could have: The Ottawa Senators, who had just finished the season with the worst record in the league, offered him only a termination contract.
Baker, a center, was wanted by the Sharks, Ottawa's chief rival last season for the title of Most Dreadful Team in the League, who signed him as a free agent in August. Baker started slowly this season, as did the Sharks, who lurched out of the gate 0-8-1, at which point they had won 11 of their previous 100 games. These same Sharks, however, came back to make the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, then bounced the No. 1-seeded Red Wings, a team that finished the regular season with 100 points and featured six players who would have led the Sharks in scoring.
San Jose coach Kevin Constantine knew his club's only chance against the Wings was to remain conservative: sit back, clog center ice, pick your spots, lean heavily on your goaltender, force turnovers and capitalize on them.
May 8, 1994
That's just what San Jose did. So stifling was the Shark defense that through Game 5, Detroit's Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Ray Sheppard, who combined for 142 regular-season goals, had scored a total of one goal. Indeed, San Jose pulled off the upset largely because its Russians were better than Detroit's. This season Shark right wing Sergei Makarov, 35, and his 33-year-old center, Igor Larionov, recaptured the form of their glory years in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when they formed two thirds of the best forward line in the world. The Sharks wooed Larionov from Lugano, a club team in Switzerland: Makarov was acquired last June from the Calgary Flames, who, like the rest of the league, had given up on him.
Makarov scored 30 goals in the regular season and tallied six times against the Red Wings in the playoffs, including a goal 14 minutes into Game 7 when he burst past countryman and Detroit defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov to backhand the puck between the legs of rookie goalie Chris Osgood, putting the Sharks up 2-0.
That lead didn't hold. The score was tied 2-2 with under seven minutes remaining when the 21-year-old Osgood wandered into the right corner and tried to clear the puck. Unfortunately it came to rest on the stick of Baker, who found himself staring at a vacant net. Thus the guy who'd been offered a termination contract by the Senators terminated the Red Wings' season.
Osgood, without whom Detroit would not have lasted seven games, broke down during postgame interviews. "I'm sorry," he said after regaining his composure. "Nobody in the city's more upset about it than me. If I could just find a way so that this thing doesn't ruin me."
"You hate to see that," said San Jose defenseman Jeff Norton. "Osgood's gonna be a hell of a goalie in this league."
"I feel bad for him," chimed in Shark goalie Arturs Irbe.
Neither felt that bad. The Sharks have moved on to the second round of the playoffs. It's somebody else's turn to suffer.