DETROIT – The first time a Red Wing seemed rattled all night, maybe all series, was in the Detroit dressing room after Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks.
Goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) was answering a question about how the Wings had come back and tied this second-round series, saying it had been business as usual and the guys had kept the same confident demeanor all along, when suddenly his voice trailed off.
“Good to see you,” Howard said.
Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey himself, had come to give his congratulations. They shook hands. Howard beamed, then returned to his interview.
Or tried to.
“So I … I forgot the answer,” Howard said.
The Wings are within reach of history now. Win Game 7 on Thursday night at San Jose, and they can do one of the few things they haven’t done, something Howe and Ted Lindsay and Steve Yzerman and all the other Detroit legends never did. They can become only the fourth NHL team ever to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series.
“Expect it,” said Howe, 83, wearing a Wings windbreaker. “If they play like they did tonight, there’s no doubt they can do it.”
The only doubt now resides in San Jose, where the Sharks, perennial playoff disappointments, face the possibility of their biggest choke yet. Former Shark Jeremy Roenick just called Patrick Marleau "gutless" on television. The Sharks all need to show some guts now.
The Wings dominated Tuesday night. It was 60 minutes of relentlessness. They. Would. Not. Lose. Even when they failed to capitalize on scoring chance after scoring chance, they did not let up. Even when they fell behind 1-0 on a fluky goal in the third period, they did not give up. They kept coming in an epic, entertaining, up-and-down battle.
Henrik Zetterberg(notes) and Valtteri Filppula(notes) scored in a one-minute, 54-second span midway through the third to give them a 2-1 lead. Darren Helm(notes) added an empty-netter with 1:05 left, and Joe Louis Arena rocked as much as it ever has, including the Stanley Cup finals. As octopi hit the ice, the fans sang and chanted, “WE WANT THE CUP!”
The Wings almost doubled-up the Sharks in shots, 45-25.
“This is something we believe we can do,” Wings forward Danny Cleary(notes) said. “The minute you think you can’t or doubt sets in your mind, you might as well forget it. But we didn’t have that. We truly believed we could get it to Game 7 and give ourselves a good shot. We’ve got a good shot.”
In 1942, the Toronto Maple Leafs rallied from a 3-0 deficit and beat the Wings. Thirty-three years later, the New York Islanders rallied from a 3-0 deficit and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. Thirty-five years after that – just last year – the Philadelphia Flyers rallied from a 3-0 deficit and beat the Boston Bruins.
It will not be another 30-some years before someone does it again, whether these Wings do it or not. This is part of what the new NHL has wrought. Since the 2004-05 lockout, with new rules and a salary cap, the play is more wide open and there’s not much difference between teams. That begets comebacks, and the comebacks themselves beget more comebacks, as teams see what others have done and think they can do it, too.
The Chicago Blackhawks nearly pulled it off in the first round this year, rallying from a 3-0 deficit and taking the Vancouver Canucks to Game 7, before falling in overtime. As he watched the Canucks cough up their lead, Bruins forward Milan Lucic(notes) saw flashbacks to last year’s series with the Flyers.
"You don't want to relax just because you're in the position you're in," Lucic said when the Chicago-Vancouver series was tied, 3-3. "You start panicking. You don't execute like you did the first three games. … I mean, you give the other team a little bit of life, and they start gaining momentum, and they starting coming at you."
When the Wings fell behind 3-0, they felt the gap was deceiving because the teams were too similar. The Sharks were the second seed in the West, the Wings the third. The Sharks were coached by former Wings assistant Todd McLellan and played the same style. Each game was decided by one goal. Wings coach Mike Babcock said either team could have won any or all of them.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this,” said Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), who broke into the NHL in 1991-92, the same season the Sharks did, “where the games have been so close and [there have been] two so evenly matched teams, too.”
What about the Wings erasing a 3-0 series deficit?
“No, I haven’t seen that, either,” Lidstrom said with a laugh.
Nothing in particular spurred the Wings. There was no turning point, no motivational ploy. There was only a one-game-at-a-time mentality and a stubborn desire to stay alive – plus the poise of a team with 11 Stanley Cup banners in the rafters, four of them hung since 1997, that doesn’t have the burden of trying to make its first Cup final like San Jose does.
“I think we realized the situation,” Cleary said. “You lose, you’re going golfing tomorrow. No one wants to golf. The weather’s not good enough yet. We’re not ready for that. We want to keep going. We have a good, talented team. The one thing that we have is a team that has a lot of heart, a lot of will. We really want to win. We believe we can. That’s why we are where we are.”
The Wings won Game 4, 4-3. Another one-goal game. After being outplayed much of Game 5, the Wings rallied from a 3-1 third-period deficit and won, 4-3. Another one-goal game. They carried that desperation directly into Game 6. They did everything they could to put the puck past goaltender Antti Niemi(notes).
Pavel Datsyuk(notes) tried a soccer-style header. Cleary came out of the penalty box, deked Niemi and had half the Joe believing he had scored, but hit the outside of the left post. Tomas Holmstrom(notes) went head over heels – a full somersault – after smacking a rebound and smacking into Sharks center Torrey Mitchell(notes). The Wings outshot the Sharks through two periods, 32-13.
Still, the score was 0-0, and early in the third came disaster. Couture batted a rebound out of the air. The puck slipped between Howard’s pads and slid – slowly, ever so slowly – over the goal line before Howard could cover it with his glove. The Sharks led, 1-0, and the sound at the Joe was a quiet gasp, like the air being let out of a balloon.
The Wings sagged for maybe three or four minutes, but that’s it.
“The minute you put your head down and say, ‘What are we going to do now?’ and doubt sets in, that’s not going to do you any good,” Cleary said. “So we stayed positive and believed we could come back, and we did.”
Zetterberg tipped a point shot by Niklas Kronwall(notes), Filppula slapped a Datsyuk pass into the net, Helm added that empty-netter, and now it’s the Sharks who must guard against putting their heads down and wondering what they’re going to do.
“Oh, we’ll ignore it,” McLellan said.
McLellan doesn’t want his players thinking about blowing a 3-0 deficit. He wants them thinking the way the Wings did when the series was 3-0 – that the series is tight, that it was supposed to be tight, that it was supposed to go seven games, right?
“Doesn’t matter how we got here,” McLellan said.
Funny, though. Now that we are here, those one-game-at-a-time Wings aren’t ignoring it anymore. With one game to go, they know it's time. History is within reach, and they seem as determined as ever to grab it.
“We won three games,” Zetterberg said. “If we lose the next one, no one will remember this.”