Wings, Sharks putting past playoff failures behind

DETROIT -- Here along the edge of the Detroit River in the place they call Hockeytown is where making history and repeating history intersects.

The Detroit Red Wings (desperate to recapture some Stanley Cup magic in the face of a string of playoff letdowns) and the San Jose Sharks (desperate to make good on Stanley Cup expectations instead of becoming the Ottawa Senators of the West) find themselves deadlocked at two games apiece with a pivotal fifth game set for Saturday afternoon.

By Saturday evening one team will have taken a giant step toward putting the past behind and creating a new history. The other? Well, let's just say this: For the team that fails in Game 5 and heads to San Jose trailing 3-2 in the series, the past will seem an awful lot more like the future than they'd care to admit.

"Personally, I don't think about it. You don't think about what happened in the past. I think about the next game," San Jose Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan insisted Friday.

In the same breath, though, the rugged defenseman said that past experiences are what make players and teams stronger. Which suggests this is the kind of series where the time/space continuum has more faults than San Andreas. At any given moment the past has been both a blessing and a curse depending on what side of the momentum ledger you happen to reside.

Through the first four games of this Western Conference semifinal, each of these well-coached, talented teams has appeared ready to emerge with a stranglehold only to stumble and default momentum to the other.
There have been turnovers and blown leads on both sides of the ledger, most recently in Game 4 when the Sharks blew a 2-0 lead late in the game, allowing the Wings to tie the game with goalie Dominik Hasek on the bench in favor of an extra attacker. The Wings went on to win it in overtime on a ghastly Hannan turnover that allowed Mathieu Schneider to rip home the winner.

In that sense, the specter of the past nips more closely at the collective heels of the Sharks than the Wings.

A year ago many felt the Sharks were ready to take that proverbial next step towards a championship. They'd been to the Western Conference final in 2004 and after the lockout brought in NHL scoring champion and Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton. They dispatched the Nashville Predators in five games and then took a 2-0 lead on Edmonton before dropping four straight games. In the pivotal third game they blew a lead late in the game and Shawn Horcoff scored in triple overtime to give the Oilers life they never relinquished.

This season the Sharks knocked off the Predators in five games and (cue the Twilight Zone theme) blew the Game 3 lead that prevented them from taking a commanding 3-1 series lead.

What does it mean?

Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

San Jose coach Ron Wilson told his team they need to look in the mirror after mental lapses cost the Sharks in their two losses. But there's the reflecting mirror and there's the rear view mirror. If the Sharks can't differentiate between the two, they're in trouble.

"We're a great hockey team. We believe that," Hannan said.

Players in the room are united in that belief and are willing to do what it takes not to let their teammates down, he said.

"That's what wins championships. Not what happened in the past," Hannan said.

Of course the Red Wings are not immune to discussions of the ghosts of playoffs past, themselves.

They were happy to talk about exorcising demons after they dispatched the Calgary Flames in six games in the first round. This was a big deal having been dumped by the aforementioned eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in the first round a year ago.

Yet this is a Wings team that has failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs since the last time they won the Stanley Cup in 2002. If they fall against San Jose in this series, those three Stanley Cup wins between 1997 and 2002 will appear even more distant than is already the case.

"You know, what happens in the past doesn't really affect the team right now," captain Nicklas Lidstrom said Friday. "We've had new faces, new guys in the locker room and it's another season, a new season. I don't think guys are looking back to what happened in previous years. We're all up for where we are right now. We're ready to play right now. We're not looking back to see what happened in previous years."

Which brings us back to Game 5.

Those who subscribe to the momentum in a vacuum theory -- that momentum can somehow be transported between games -- would give the edge to the Red Wings heading into Saturday's contest.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock is not one of those believers, however. As much as you'd like to believe the come-from-behind win on the road in Game 4 might somehow catapult the Wings forward while pushing the Sharks into their own past, Babcock isn't counting on it.

"It doesn't usually go that way," Babcock admitted.

This is Chris Chelios's 22nd playoff run. The Detroit defenseman understands that it's only in the final accounting that key moments are revealed or put in their proper perspective. "Hopefully we can look back at the end of this series and maybe say that Lang goal was a big momentum swing but only time's going to tell and the game's are so close. Any of the games could have gone either way," he said.

"People talking about momentum or carry-over," added Detroit netminder Dominik Hasek. "Everything can change within a second of the game. When the puck is dropped we have to be ready."

Of course all of this, the recent past, the distant past, the past present even, might just be the figment of some writer's imagination.

"This is hockey. This is playoff hockey, we're playing a great team that's not going to give up," San Jose head coach Ron Wilson said. "You guys are looking for way too much crap out there than just saying that there's two very good teams playing a great series. Whether we could have won the series 4-0 they easily can make the same claim as well. It's 2-2, best-of-three. If you'd have asked me before the series started I probably would have said it would be 2-2 and become a best-of-three."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.