DETROIT – The Detroit Red Wings were pushed to the brink of elimination on home ice by the Anaheim Ducks.
Dan Cleary came through, though, scoring a tiebreaking goal with three minutes left that lifted Detroit to a 4-3 win on Thursday night that sent the defending Stanley Cup champions to the Western Conference finals for the third straight year.
“Most teams that have won the Stanley Cup don’t even get here,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “For us to be in this situation is a real positive, but we have a hungry Chicago team waiting for us.”
Detroit will host the Blackhawks in Game 1 on Sunday, matching up the Original Six teams in the playoffs for the first time since the conference finals in 1995.
“It should be fun,” Babcock said.
Before Detroit did it, Colorado was the most recent NHL team to reach the conference finals after hoisting the Cup. The Avalanche lost to Detroit 7-0 in the deciding game in 2002.
The previous two Cup champions met for the third time since the NHL expanded in 1967, and all three series went the distance. The Edmonton Oilers needed overtime to get past Calgary in 1991, and Montreal beat Boston by two goals in 1971.
Unlike those winners, second-seeded Detroit was at home against eighth-seeded Anaheim, which knocked off the top-seeded San Jose Sharks in the first round.
Five of the games were decided by a goal, including Game 2 in triple overtime.
“It was the best series I’ve been in,” Babcock said.
Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller had a lot to do with the competitiveness, making 36 saves in the finale.
“What made this series so hard and what people don’t understand, the people that have won know what it takes to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what made them so hard to get rid of.”
Chris Osgood stopped 24 shots for the Red Wings, who couldn’t protect a two-goal lead in the second period.
“It was a tough series, probably one of the toughest we’ve played in a long time,” Osgood said.
Detroit’s Jiri Hudler, Darren Helm and Mikael Samuelsson scored.
Cleary set up a matchup with his former team by scoring the winning goal, stuffing the puck past Hiller after Henrik Zetterberg flipped it into the crease.
“Z was in the corner and made a good play, put it on net,” Cleary said. “I stayed with it and got it under Hiller.”
Ducks coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t sure the goal should have been allowed, but didn’t complain much about it.
“When (Hiller) went down, Cleary pushed his pads,” Carlyle said. “It’s moot at this point.”
The Ducks, though, showed a lot of resolve to make Game 7 necessary and to give Detroit all it could handle.
“When you’re that close with so few minutes left, it’s tough to lose,” Ducks defenceman Scott Niedermayer said.
Teemu Selanne and Corey Perry cut into deficits, and Bobby Ryan made it 3-3 at 7:37 of the third.
The game ended in thrilling fashion after it appeared the Red Wings might win in a rout. Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf was called for two penalties in the first period and Detroit took advantage of the second.
Anaheim failed on an extended 5-on-3 power play in the first period when the game was scoreless.
“That was huge to keep us in the game and not give them any momentum,” Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said.
Detroit took a 2-0 lead 1:17 into the second period.
Selanne committed a turnover in Detroit’s end, Helm got to the loose puck and scored on a breakaway.
Selanne left the ice late in the second after Brad Stuart’s hit, which drew a penalty and cut Selanne’s nose. He returned and started an offensive outburst with a goal off a rebound in what was the first of three scores in 2 1/2 minutes.
Samuelsson and Perry also scored off a rebound late in the second period, and Detroit went into the third with a 3-2 lead.
“The series was 3-3 but, in my opinion, we outplayed them in every game and their goalie stood on his head,” Babcock said.
Notes: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attended the game and said the league didn’t just become intriguing when three of the conference semifinal series were decided in a Game 7. “This entire season – the regular season, the first round of the playoffs and second round – have been incredibly competitive, exciting and entertaining,” Bettman said. “That’s something we have strived for and built toward since coming out of work stoppage with a new economic system, changing the rules, and officiating standards.” … Detroit has won three of five series against Anaheim. … The Red Wings have advanced to at least the conference finals eight times in the last 14 seasons, winning the Cup in 1997, ’98, 2002 and ’08.