Sharks shedding past playoff rap
DETROIT -- An old, beat-up rink was the stage for some sparkling new storylines Tuesday night, and perhaps a changing of the guard.
With a come-from-behind, 4-3 overtime win on Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena and a 3-0 stranglehold in their second-round series against the mighty Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks are revealing themselves to be playoff demons as opposed to being haunted by them come springtime.
Unable to hold on to a 3-1 lead entering the third period, the modern-day NHL dynasty that is the Red Wings showed some cracks, a surprising twist given the way their post-Olympic dominance buoyed Hockeytown into believing yet another Cup run was in the cards.
But really, on this night in particular, when you want to talk about a fresh new take on playoff hockey, you have to start with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, forever the media's whipping boys for their past playoff struggles. One can't imagine a more telling moment for the San Jose franchise than Thornton setting up Marleau for the game-winner 7:07 into overtime to help shake loose those monkeys off their backs, if not throw them off.
"It's a huge goal for us," said Sharks winger Devin Setoguchi. "I think it's big in many ways for the whole team."
The reaction after the goal from Thornton and Marleau's teammates also spoke volumes.
"Just in that pile after the goal, it was big," said linemate Dany Heatley. "They've taken a lot [of criticism], like you said, and I think unjustly in my opinion. It's tough to win in the playoffs. They've been great all year and they've been great all their careers. It was a big goal tonight for them."
Thornton particularly made his presence felt on every shift Tuesday, including a key goal 6:42 into the third period that cut Detroit's lead to 3-2 and gave the Sharks momentum before Logan Couture eventually tied it at 13:17.
"It's a big thing in our locker room, but we believe in those players way more than the outside world does," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "I don't remember how this evolved [Thornton's and Marleau's playoff reputation]. I wasn't around for all of it. But you could see a very determined No. 19 tonight. ... I thought Patty played his way into the game, wasn't his best early, but later on really played well and skated.
"It's a big deal in our locker room, but it's probably a lot bigger for you guys out here to write about and talk about."
Tuesday night might have been an important first step for Marleau and Thornton in rehabilitating their playoff reputations, but some connected to the team take offense when it is suggested the stars didn't care enough before.
"Those guys care more than anybody, and sometimes they care too much," Mike Ricci, a former Sharks player and now a development coach with the organization, told ESPN.com outside the San Jose locker room after the game. "I think they've learned to relax a little bit."
You weren't going to get any comments from either player after the game about personal business, but rather the excitement for the team's being up 3-0 in the series. Make it six wins in a row for men in teal. Convinced yet? The boys who couldn't shoot straight come the playoffs are one win away from their first trip to the conference finals in six years. Six agonizing, upsetting years.
"I don't think we, as a team, are out to convince anybody," said McLellan. "We knew we were a different team [this season]. I guess what we have to do is prove that to the hockey world. But we believed we were different and we believe in each other. But don't get me wrong, we're not talking like this is over. We've got a long way to go and a lot to overcome to work through that."
In the other dressing room Tuesday night, one so used to the sweet smell of playoff victory, it was eerily quiet.
"It's tough when you're up 3-1 going into the third period in your building," said Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "I thought we did play well in the first couple of periods. But then, I don't know if it was that they pushed us back or we were trying to protect the lead -- we didn't play as well as we had to in the third period, and that's why they scored a couple goals on us."
We'll save you the rest of what Red Wings players were saying Tuesday night, the usual business of just focusing on one win at a time and not losing faith. But through those clichés in a somber dressing room, one could read the real truth in their eyes: "We're really going to lose to San Jose ... in the second round!"
A team that has written the book on winning in the pre- and post-salary cap world, a club that has set the bar both behind the bench and in the front office, is seriously wobbling at the knees awaiting one final punch.
The litany of injuries that floored this team in the first half of the season and the ferocious focus and effort it took to get back into a playoff spot in the second half may have left this great collection of winners out of gas. A seven-game win over Phoenix in the first round certainly didn't help things.
But as Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle reminded everyone Tuesday night, never count out the players wearing the Winged Wheel.
"We have so much respect for that team," said Boyle. "If there's one team that can come back from a 3-0 deficit, it's them. There's so much work left to be done. We have to win one more. It's too good of a team over there. They're not going to lay down and die."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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