SAN JOSE, Calif. – When the horn sounded and the San Jose Sharks had finally emerged victorious in their seven-game bout with the grizzled Detroit Red Wings, the players lifted their sticks to celebrate not blowing a 3-0 series lead. But that's where the jubilation ended.
In the locker room afterward, there were no smiles, only laser focus on what's next: the Vancouver Canucks, who they will meet Sunday north of the border in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
"I was really excited, but it lasted about 10 seconds," defenseman Dan Boyle(notes) said after the Sharks' 3-2 win. "Almost immediately you start thinking about, 'OK, we got to suit up again in a few days.' We're halfway there. As hard as we've worked, we're only halfway there."
These playoffs are 29 days old now for the Sharks, 14 of which were spent trying to dispatch the Red Wings, who just … wouldn't … die. After falling behind 3-0 in the series, Detroit rallied and rallied and rallied to tie things up, sending a shiver of panic that shredded nerves all around the South Bay.
No, yes and no, though not without registering a few more tremors on that Richter scale of nerves.
After getting completely blitzkrieged in Game 6, when they were outshot 42-24, the Sharks came out firing in Game 7, playing to win rather than not to lose. Midway through the first period, Ryane Clowe(notes), back after missing a game because of a chest injury, tested Jimmy Howard(notes) with a shot to the gut. Eleven seconds later, Jason Demers(notes) nearly scooted one past Howard.
The Sharks hadn't scored, but they were the aggressor, something they hadn't been since the third period of Game 5 when the Red Wings rallied from a 3-1 deficit to extend the series.
Twelve minutes in, Devin Setoguchi(notes) finally got the Sharks on the board with a power-play goal. Then, with 59 seconds left in the first period, Logan Couture(notes) stole a poor attempt at an outlet from Henrik Zetterberg(notes) and casually flipped it by Howard.
At the break, the Sharks were up 2-0 and seemingly on cruise control.
But they were a different team in the second. They started thinking, playing cute and as head coach Todd McLellan later explained, were afraid "to make mistakes."
Clowe had a wide-open look, but didn't pull the trigger. That led to a break the other way where Zetterberg made up for his earlier gaffe with a nifty backhand that beat Sharks goalie Antii Niemi.
The hosts still held a 2-1 lead, but the goal rocked their confidence and desperation quickly set in. In the final few minutes of the second period, the Sharks iced the puck three times. It was all they could do to get to the locker room clinging to a one-goal lead.
"Without a doubt," McLellan said when asked if his team tightened up. "It's part of growth, and we're still in that process."
To a man, the players said there wasn't any panic in the locker room between periods, rather they were just trying to calm themselves down. They seemed to do just that.
After getting outshot in the second period 17-6, the Sharks nearly took back a two-goal lead just 30 seconds into the third when Couture clanked one off the post. The lamp actually lit at HP Pavilion, but play continued.
With 7:47 to go, Marleau did light the lamp when he slapped home a rebound off a Setoguchi shot. It was the first point of the series for Marleau, who has been a whipping boy for critics like former teammate Jeremy Roenick(notes). Marleau's former teammate labeled him as "gutless" after the Game 5 loss.
"Obviously, they came hard at us in the second, but we were [still] up one goal heading into the third, Game 7, we were in a good position," Marleau said. "We talked about that, you know kinda calmed down, everybody got their breath, got to put the second period behind us and go out and win the third."
And still Detroit wouldn't die. Less than two minutes after Marleau's goal, Pavel Datsyuk(notes) made it 3-2 with a backhanded shot that appeared to fool Niemi. With 28 seconds left, it was Datsyuk again, this time with a chance to send the game into overtime. From point-blank range, he wound up and blasted an uncontested shot. But there stood Niemi, snaring the puck with his glove. And with that the series was over.
There would be no choke. The Sharks would not be on the sour end of a historic comeback. And though they would have preferred not to have had to go the distance with the Red Wings, having done so may ultimately embolden them in their quest to win the Stanley Cup.
"I don't know if there was a moment of panic," Setoguchi said afterward of the Sharks blowing the 3-0 series lead. "But as you go further and further in the playoffs, just sitting on the bench, you're gonna get nervous. You're gonna get that feeling. We've been in these spots before, and now the nerves are settled down a lot more than they were before. I think that's the experience that we've gotten in the room, and it definitely helps."