SAN JOSE, Calif. – Whether it’s been after a heart-stopping win or a crushing loss, San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan has always been consistent in his belief that new momentum is created at the start of every game.
Never before has McLellan hoped more that his belief in a lack of a carry-over effect was true than heading into Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinal against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night.
The Sharks have squandered a 3-0 series advantage, blowing a pair of third-period leads to move to the brink of becoming just the fourth NHL team ever to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games.
“It doesn’t matter how we got here, whether it was 3-0 or win one, lose one,” McLellan said. “What matters is the input we put into the game tomorrow. That will be the mental approach. Each of those individuals in there should be confident in their skill level and their commitment level. They’ve proven it before and it’s just a matter of bringing it to the rink and putting it on the ice.”
The Red Wings would seem to have all the momentum heading into Game 7 when they look to add another memorable accomplishment for a franchise that has won four Stanley Cup titles since 1997.
Detroit is the eighth team in NHL history to force a Game 7 after being down 3-0, with three of the previous seven completing the comeback—including Philadelphia last year in the second round against Boston.
“You can’t think about that,” Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. “Your focus has to be on the same approach that we had in the last three games. We’re one win away from moving on but we’re also one win away from not playing anymore in the playoffs, so we know what’s at stake. Our approach is going to be the same as we had in the last three games.”
The winner advances to the conference final against Vancouver.
Both teams could be going into the crucial game short-handed. Ryane Clowe, who leads San Jose with 13 points this post-season, did not practice Wednesday after missing Game 6 with an upper-body injury and is a game-time decision. Johan Franzen missed Tuesday’s game for Detroit with an injured left ankle and his status is questionable.
The series has been extremely close all the way through despite the alternating three-game winning streaks. The first five games were decided by one goal with only an empty-netter by Detroit snapping that streak in Game 6.
“The series could’ve gone either way,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “We could’ve won all the games and they could’ve won all the games. That’s how tight it’s been. Now, we get to go to their building and let’s get energized and try to go in there and win a game. We have to remain calm and understand what our plan is and be poised and yet, let our determination work.”
The Sharks had their chances to close out this series already. Dany Heatley scored the tying goal late in the first period of Game 4 last Friday night in Detroit before Darren Helm won it for the Red Wings with 1:27 to play.
San Jose then took a 3-1 lead in the opening minute of the third period of Game 5 at home on Sunday night, before the Red Wings stormed back with three goals in a span of just more than 10 minutes to send the series back to Detroit.
The Red Wings then dominated Game 6 at home but found themselves trailing 1-0 after Logan Couture scored early in the third period. But Detroit finally managed to get some pucks past a previously impenetrable Antti Niemi, scoring twice in less than 2 minutes, and then iced the game with an empty-net goal that set up this Game 7.
“We certainly have good momentum,” forward Danny Cleary said. “We’ve played well. Last game was probably our best effort. We’re getting contributions from different players and our goaltender is still playing great. That’s a good sign. Experience helped us last night, not getting down after they scored that first goal. We stayed the course. It was a huge game.”
The Red Wings spent the off-day travelling from Michigan to Silicon Valley, while the Sharks got home early Wednesday morning and had a brief practice in the afternoon. They called themselves a “confident” team that is not worried
“After you got to bed at night, the next day you start over,” defenceman Dan Boyle said. “I’ve been in all kinds of series,down three, up three, back and forth, it doesn’t matter. It is what it is, you’re trying to win a series. We put ourselves in that position, and here we are again.”
If the Sharks are going to recover, they will have to get better play out of some of their top players.
Patrick Marleau, who led the team in scoring in the regular season, has no points through the first six games, Heatley has just one goal in the six games and captain Joe Thornton has a minus-3 rating the past three games. The vaunted power play unit is 0-for-10 the past three games, where all of those players usually excel.
“There’s a lot of pride in this room,” forward Devin Setoguchi said. “I know a lot of guys will take it upon themselves to maybe step up their game, which will trigger other guys to follow, and it starts with the leaders and the guys who play the most, and everyone else follows.”