So, it's San Jose after all.
Well, why not? The Sharks advanced to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the same way the Vancouver Canucks moved on to the second round - the hard way, at the end of a dizzying, momentum-shifting seven-game series in which they finally had the answers against the plucky but injury-riddled Detroit Red Wings.
The Sharks got a monstrously effective game from their captain, Joe Thornton, as well as a pivotal goal from rookie-of-the-year candidate Logan Couture to open up a two-goal first-period lead. Despite a furious Detroit push the rest of the way, the Sharks escaped with a 3-2 win, which gave them the best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final series by a 4-3 count.
"It was a hell of a series - and a hell of a game," said Sharks' coach Todd McLellan, echoing comments from around the hockey world; that aesthetically, it might have been one of the best seven-game series ever. That was a point former Stanley Cup winner Chris Osgood made to a couple of reporters - it was a series that had something for everyone, including seven fabulous finishes.
For the Sharks, the much-maligned Patrick Marleau, the team's former captain and regular-season scoring leader, recorded his first point of the series, but it came at a critical time - with 7:47 to go in the third period and the Red Wings pressing hard for the tying goal. Marleau was open at the right goal post to tuck in the rebound of a Devin Setoguchi shot behind goaltender Jimmy Howard.
Marleau's goal turned out to be the winner, only because Pavel Datsyuk worked his magic again, scoring a brilliant backhander under the crossbar only 106 seconds later to draw the Red Wings back to within one. It was another nail-biting finish to a series in which the only game that wasn't decided by a single goal - Game 6 - included an empty-netter.
San Jose was on the brink of a historic collapse - losing three in a row after winning the first three in the series, the same route that Vancouver took against the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round. But just as Vancouver did, the Sharks found a way to stop the bleeding just in time and now get a 72-hour window to prepare for the Canucks in the conference final, with the winner advancing to the Stanley Cup final.
"I think a lot of people watched this game and you hope for a comeback," said McLellan. "The casual fan would like to see the comeback and we were aware of it, but we did a good job of eliminating that from our mindset."
At different times in the recent past, the Sharks and Canucks have both battled the ghosts of failed playoff pasts, which theoretically puts them on the same, even psychological footing heading into the third round.
Vancouver is the more rested team, having been off since Monday after dispatching the Nashville Predators in six games. Both put a lot of travel miles on the odometer in the previous round, so the comparatively short trip up and down the Left Coast - playing an opponent in the same Pacific time zone - should make life easier on the body for both squads.
Thornton provided a staunch effort in the early going, when the Sharks needed to reverse the momentum of an ugly loss in Game 6, in which they were in it to the end only because of goaltender Antti Niemi's strong play. Thornton was inspired - in the face-off circle, around the net, on the attack. He made plays - setting up Setoguchi for the game's opening goal, on the power play; putting Dany Heatley in alone for a point-blank chance - all in the first period.
"We were on a pretty even keel all year," said Thornton. "I think it showed now. We go up 3-0 and we didn't panic or anything being down 3-0 in the last three games. We just came out and played. That's what we did tonight."
Thornton thought the winning goal "took a lot of weight off [Marleau's] shoulders. He knows he has to be better. Now he's ready to go. I'm sure everyone in the Bay Area is happy for him."
McLellan, who has a long history with Marleau, added: "This year is no different than any other year. Paddy, Jumbo [Thornton] they become the lightning rods. When it doesn't go well, people question them - and that was out there. But the way we played them through the series and the amount of minutes [Marleau]got, we obviously believe in him immensely. For him to end up with the winning goal is pretty special for our team and for him.
"I think the monkey will be off his back and he'll be even better in the next series."
Couture, too, was something of a revelation. His goal, with 59 seconds to in the opening period, was pivotal because it gave San Jose a rare two-goal cushion. In the first six games of an ultra-tight series, the games were either tied or one team led by a single goal for 90 per cent of the action. Couture's goal - after intercepting a Henrik Zetterberg clearing attempt - caught Howard by surprise, a perfectly placed shot, dispatched in a flash. Couture had key goals for the Sharks in the third period of both Games 4 and 5, but they couldn't close the deal.
Zetterberg made up for his miscue by scoring the only goal of the second period, converting a Valtteri Filppula feed on a three-on-two break, a period in which Detroit held a significant edge on the shot clock and McLellan needed to call a time out to settle down his team. San Jose was hanging on by a thread by the end, but hang on they did.
"You live and learn," said defenceman Dan Boyle. "I think we've got to learn from the mistakes we made. We still made them tonight. We made 'em on the first goal, got caught on a three-on-two. You just can't do that come playoff time. There's going to be mistakes, I know that, you just got to be responsible out there. It's a learning experience for everybody."
Ultimately, Couture may end up being a difference maker on a Sharks team that has now qualified for the conference final in consecutive years. He is up to six goals and counting in the postseason and showing that his presence among the top three Calder Trophy candidates is deserved.
The Sharks also got Ryan Clowe, Couture's regular winger, back for the game, after he missed Game 6 because of an upper-body injury. Clowe agitated as well as he could, adding a physical edge to the game. Detroit, by contrast, went without Johan Franzen, out with an ankle problem, and then lost Todd Bertuzzi as a result of an upper-body injury. Bertuzzi played only five shifts and 3:53 of the opening period. Later, Jiri Hudler collided with teammate Dan Cleary, inadvertently elbowing him in the head and knocking him out of the game as well. Detroit was down to 10 forwards for their final push.
"We played Detroit and we expected it to go seven games," said Clowe. "Let's go look at the predictions. A lot of people picked Detroit in seven or six and maybe one guy in 10 picked us. So we knew we were in for a long series, but we knew we were the better team.
"I said this before the series, if we put our game on the ice, we're going to win. We put our game on the ice and we won."Report Typo/Error