Commentary

Wings' stars don't quit versus Sharks

Updated: May 9, 2011, 12:11 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Pavel Datsyuk twirled and twirled and twirled.

All the while, the San Jose Sharks chased him, bumped him and took swipes at him, but they couldn't get the puck off him.

Finally, the Detroit Red Wings center dished off at the point to Nicklas Lidstrom, whose shot was deflected by Tomas Holmstrom for the winner Sunday night in a 4-3 Game 5 victory. It was a classic moment in a series that's building up to be its own classic.

"I thought Pavel was unbelievable in the third," said Wings coach Mike Babcock.

"He is without a doubt the best in the world at picking pockets and lifting sticks," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "And he not only did it once, he did it twice [on that shift]."

[+] EnlargeJimmy Howard
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezJimmy Howard made 39 saves Sunday night to help Detroit force a Game 6.

The Red Wings are still alive and they can thank the all-world Datsyuk and his three-assist night, as well the 39-save performance from Jimmy Howard. The Wings' goalie gave his team a chance to hang in long enough to allow Datsyuk's magic to take over.

"Jimmy stole us the game tonight," said Wings forward Daniel Cleary, who scored his second goal of the series and playoffs Sunday night. "They had a lot of good chances to put this game away, but he's really battling in there. He's really stepped up in these playoffs and proven himself."

Howard kept his team within a goal after two periods even though the Wings were being outshot 30-16.

"I just wanted to keep it close for the guys," Howard said. "You knew the Sharks were going to come out and fire away. I just wanted to keep it close because I knew the character of our team."

The Wings hung around even though they didn't deserve it based on their early play.

"The bottom line is that we were in a one-shot game and we hadn't been very good," said Babcock. "That's what I said to the guys. 'We can have Game 6 at home in Detroit if we just want to get playing here. Let's just get competing here.'"

Logan Couture beat Howard to put the Sharks up 3-1 just 54 seconds into the third period and a rocking HP Pavilion could smell a Western Conference finals berth. Howard, however, shut the door for the remainder of the period, as the Wings rallied with three goals and Datsyuk seemingly willing his team back.

"I know our fans support us and believe in us, and now we go home,'' Datsyuk said.

Simply put, there has been no greater player in these Stanley Cup playoffs than the magical Datsyuk.

"He's a world-class player," Babcock said. "It's interesting as you watch the playoffs. There's lots of nice players during the regular season and they've got good skill and all that. But if you don't have a drive and you don't compete at the highest level, you can't win at this time of year. ... It's all about competition level and digging in and winning those battles, and that's what Pavel has."

After Datsyuk didn't practice Saturday, there were rumblings he could have missed Sunday's game with a suspected hand/wrist injury. The fact he didn't take a single faceoff Sunday suggests there's indeed something wrong (Babcock would not say). You wouldn't know it from the gutsy performance Datsyuk delivered.

"He was outstanding tonight. He's been great all playoffs," said Cleary. "He's our driving force. He's got a lot of will and determination in him. ... He's got great strength on the puck. He steals pucks and it's hard to get it off him. He's a real inspirational player for us and a big leader."

"In practices, he amazes us, and in games he consistently amazes us," added Howard.

Babcock made a sharp move in reuniting Datsyuk with Henrik Zetterberg in the second period, and the reshaped line won its battle with Joe Thornton's top line for the rest of the game. Still, for the Sharks, this felt like robbery. They outshot the Wings 42-22 and had a two-goal lead early in the third period.

"We gave up six shots in the third period and three of them went in. We made some mistakes and world-class players capitalized on them," said McLellan, who later said he wasn't hanging that on goalie Antti Niemi. "We didn't play a poor game and that's hard to swallow. We didn't give up many opportunities. I actually thought we had some poise and composure in the third period, but they took advantage of some of our mistakes.

"We've got five minutes to hang our heads and feel sorry for ourselves and we've already started the recovery process. I believe if we play that way again and reproduce that game, we give ourselves a good opportunity to win."

In the end, we've got the kind of series most of us expected before the puck was dropped for the second round. Two bona-fide Stanley Cup contenders headed for at least six games. And all five games so far have been decided by only one goal.

"It just shows how close this series has been," said Howard. "All five games could have gone either way."

But it sure feels good for the Wings to fly back home with company.

"We were thinking, 'We got to fly back to Detroit, so why not bring them back with us,'" smiled Howard.

Howard and Datsyuk made sure of that.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.