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Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks looks down in the final seconds of a 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 10, 2011 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks looks down in the final seconds of a 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 10, 2011 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Sharks down to last chance Add to ...

History was on everybody's mind at the San Jose Sharks practice facility, Sharks Ice, on Wednesday, mostly because reporters were asking and players were answering, some tossing out a well-worn cliché here, others offering an defiant bromide there. Everyone knew the facts: Just eight teams in NHL playoff history have come back from a 3-0 disadvantage to square a series at 3-3, but three times, it's happened in the past two years, and once just a couple of weeks ago.

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Parity, right? And the last time it occurred, the visiting Chicago Blackhawks couldn't seal the deal after winning Games 4, 5 and 6 in their series against the Vancouver Canucks, which seemed as hopelessly out of reach as the Detroit Red Wings were against the Sharks about a week ago.

As close as the Blackhawks came to recording a comeback for the ages, their failure to win Game 7 made them just an asterisk in the playoff drama this years. They've been gone for two weeks and counting, while the Canucks remain alive, with a chance to win it all.

Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle watched that one on TV and said Wednesday, "Everybody was counting Vancouver out. I kinda predicted Vancouver would beat them in seven. It was a close one, but they found a way to win - and that's all we're looking for."

Boyle has been with the Sharks long enough to know how their playoff history hangs, albatross-like, around their collective necks. In franchise history, they're 12-13 in playoff series and have yet to make the Stanley Cup final, even though they've iced an elite team for most of the past decade.

But knowing they still have one chance to survive what would be an epic collapse was the straw the Sharks clutched Wednesday, when every fibre of their beings should have been screaming, 'This cannot be happening to us.' Even by their own standards, which includes far more playoff failures than successes, this defeat would be one for the record books.

"There's a lot of people out there that want to see Detroit win, and that's fine," Boyle said. "I think a lot of people are looking for us to fail - and that's okay with me. We've just got to rise above that."

Still, it is probably not overstating matters to say the seventh game of their 2011 second round Thursday represents the most important game in franchise history, one that could define the Sharks' direction for years to come.

A victory and all will be forgiven. A loss and the same old questions will be asked about the same old Sharks - and at some point, general manager Doug Wilson's infinite patience will be ultimately be put to the test.

"What it comes down to is one game, winner moves on," defenceman Douglas Murray said. "You've got no time to feel sorry for ourselves or worry about the negatives. We've got a great team in here and we've done a lot of great things throughout the year and we believe in each other. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Unexpectedly, the Sharks went through a short on-ice workout Wednesday, unusual this deep in the postseason, and especially after a long travel day home. But these are desperate times and coach Todd McLellan was leaving nothing left to chance. If they win, they will likely need to do so without Ryan Clowe, their leading playoff scorer, who didn't make the trip to Detroit for Game 6 and wasn't on the ice for practice Wednesday either. He is officially out with an upper-body injury.

So McLellan will scramble his lines again, just as he did two days ago, with perhaps Torrey Mitchell or Benn Ferriero moving up to play in the top six.

Against all the negativism surrounding the team, the one positive has been the play of goaltender Antti Niemi, who almost single-handedly helped the Sharks steal Game 6 in Detroit. Niemi stopped 42 shots and kept the game scoreless early into the third period, before the Red Wings finally broke through with a pair of goals (plus an empty-netter) to win.

Niemi is 5-0 in his NHL career in playoff series, after winning the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks last season. It's one statistic that plays into San Jose's favour. On a day when the mood in the dressing room was surprisingly upbeat, even team captain Joe Thornton stood there, smiling and answering questions, including one about a seventh-game victory over the Calgary Flames in the 2008 playoffs - a win triggered by a standout Jeremy Roenick performance, of all things.

"I don't think there's a better feeling in hockey than going seven games and winning it in front of your home fans," Thornton said. "That's what we're looking forward to."

So Thornton will conjure up the memory of his play in that victorious moment to prepare for Game 7 Thursday? Thornton smiled and answered: "From a game three years ago? I don't even remember yesterday, to be honest with you."

Maybe that's just as well.

 

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