For 40 minutes, the Detroit Red Wings out-skated, out-hit and, by a wide, wide margin, out-shot the San Jose Sharks in an electrifying display of playoff hockey as the 20,006 fans at Joe Louis Arena screamed their approval.
The hockey gods are a capricious lot, though. As so often happens to teams who bang away for periods on end with nothing to show for it, it looked like the Wings would be struck down by a freakish goal by the Sharks early in the third period.
But then came Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula.
They scored 1 minute, 54 seconds apart late in the third period to give the Red Wings the 3-1 win they deserved and send the cold fingers of cruel doubt around the hearts of the Sharks, who have blown a 3-0 lead in their Western Conference playoff series. Now the Sharks, who have the dubious reputation of never living up to their regular-season success in the playoffs, face the seventh and deciding game against the Red Wings on Thursday in San Jose. Darren Helm finished things off with an empty-net goal.
Before all that, it looked like Sharks winger Logan Couture stuck a dagger in the Detroit hopes when he poked at a rebound that somehow dribbled between Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard's legs to give the Sharks a 1-0 lead at 3:54.
Up to that point, only Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi prevented a rout at the hands of the Red Wings. He was simply sensational in making 42 saves, refusing to wilt under a relentless Detroit attack.
However, the Red Wings are no collection of newbies. They are well aware how unfair hockey can be for teams who hammer away without scoring.
"You just keep going, be positive and try to do good things," Zetterberg said. "Not all the bounces are on our side in one game.
"You've just got to focus on your task. It is boring [to say] but it really is one game at a time. They scored the first goal. That happens. But we found a way to come back."
They came back on a bounce that went their way and on an alert play by Filppula. The bounce was off Zetterberg's stick when he stuck it out waist-high to deflect a shot by defenceman Niklas Kronwall behind Niemi. Then Filppula picked off a bad pass by Couture with his hand. He sent it to Pavel Datsyuk and took off for the net, converting a nifty return feed from Datsyuk.
Wings defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom, still a dominant player at 41, practically shrugged when he was asked if the Red Wings were ready to sag after Couture's goal.
"The game wasn't over," he said. "It was a one-goal game. We stuck with our game plan and it finally worked out for us."
Now the Wings are the eighth NHL team to force a Game 7 after falling behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven NHL playoff series. Only three won - the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and 1975 New York Islanders in preliminary rounds and the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who knocked off the Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup.
In the first period, Niemi made up for any inconsistency he showed in the regular season and his shaky performance in the third period of Game 5 in this series simply by getting the Sharks into the second with the score tied 0-0.
The Red Wings came at the Sharks and Niemi in waves, storming his crease repeatedly as the visitors looked shell-shocked. By the end of the period, the Wings had outshot the Sharks 18-6 but were unable to seize the lead thanks to Niemi.
In the second period, the assault continued with the crowd roaring its approval but Niemi still refused to break. He stopped another 14 shots as the Wings took a 32-13 lead in that department through the first 40 minutes.
But the score stood at 0-0 as the third period started, although the Wings had to be wondering what strange sacrifices the Sharks made to the hockey gods to keep it that way.
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan, though, did not see any magic, unless you were talking about a disappearing act.
"I thought our performance was disappointing," he said. "Only one team skated."
McLellan laid the Sharks' challenge of overcoming their reputation as playoff underachievers right at the feet of his players.
"A lot of you asked before the series what home ice meant," he said. "I guess we'll find out now. The stage will be theirs. It's an opportunity to answer the bell."
Perhaps the Sharks were out of sorts due to an injury to winger Ryan Clowe, which forced McLellan to break up his best line of the playoffs. Clowe, Couture and Dany Heatley were the Sharks' most dependable line but Tuesday night McLellan had to move Heatley with centre Patrick Marleau and left winger Torrey Mitchell. Couture played left wing with centre Joe Thornton and right winger Devin Setoguchi. Neither unit was in sync in the first period.
The Red Wings were not completely healthy either. Johan Franzen's ankle injury, which kept him out of Game 4 and on the bench for most of Game 5, was too much for him to play Tuesday and he was replaced by Mike Modano, who played on the top line with Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom.
It appears Datsyuk was not completely healthy either. He only took a few faceoffs, letting Modano handle most of them, and the suspicion is he has a hand or wrist injury. The injury might be to his left hand, since Datsyuk had no hesitation in throwing a right jab at Mitchell in a second-period confrontation.