2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – Semifinals Game 7 Recap
Western Conference Semifinal Game 7 - San Jose 3, Detroit 2 – Sharks win series, 4-3
The San Jose Sharks might have led this second-round series by a three-game margin, but it’s entirely reasonable to say that they didn’t choke away that lead. The Detroit Red Wings legitimately erased San Jose’s 3-0 advantage to force Game 7 on Thursday night at HP Pavilion in Silicon Valley, so there was only one thing for the Sharks to do: Work hard enough, long enough, and well enough to outclass one of the elite franchises in the National Hockey League.
Mission accomplished… barely.
In a classic game at the end of one of the greatest playoff series of all time, the Sharks held off the determined but deficient Red Wings in a rousing affair that emptied both teams’ physical and emotional reserves. The all-out effort poured forth by both sides was something to behold, but by the smallest of margins, the Sharks were indeed better. Dominant in the first period and smoked in the second, San Jose persevered in the third to end Detroit’s hopes of becoming the fourth team in the history of hockey to erase a 3-0 series deficit. One year after Philadelphia turned this supremely tough trick against Boston, the Red Wings – just like their rivals from Chicago two weeks ago against Vancouver – couldn’t put the finishing touches on a Game 7 win away from home.
There were a few outstanding features of a fiercely-contested tilt that went down to the final 10 seconds, with Detroit furiously trying to tie the game with an extra attacker… but falling just short. The first thing to appreciate about this game is that San Jose pounced on a dumb Detroit mistake to score one of its three goals. Late in the first period, Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg, instead of carrying the puck up the ice, made an incomprehensible backhand pass that San Jose’s Logan Couture intercepted. Almost in one continuous motion, Couture cradled the puck with his stick and swept it top-shelf, past Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard. San Jose owned the first period, but that giveaway-and-goal enabled the Sharks to gain a two-goal advantage after 20 minutes, not just a one-score edge. Detroit outplayed San Jose throughout the second period and in most of the third, but San Jose’s ability to turn its opponent’s gaffe into a goal loomed large throughout the final two periods.
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The second key in this contest was San Jose’s Joe Thornton. The captain of the Sharks has been a mostly absent player in the playoffs, but he came good when his team needed him to do so. Thornton assisted Devin Setoguchi on the night’s first goal, and he dominated along the boards and in the corners to keep Detroit at bay throughout the first 20 minutes. Leaders lead by example, and no one on the Sharks led his team better than Thornton.
Inspired by that show of responsibility, one of Thornton’s teammates similarly answered the call for a team that felt all the pressure in this game, pressure increased by the Sharks’ long history of postseason failures. Patrick Marleau has been a longtime member of the San Jose roster, quite possibly the man associated with the franchise more than any other. Marleau got called out by Versus television analyst and former Shark Jeremy Roenick after a no-show in Game 6 on Tuesday night in Detroit. Marleau had to hear about his penchant for coming up small in big situations, and boy, did he ever deliver a man-sized response on Thursday. It was Marleau’s gritty rebound tap-in that scored the Sharks’ third and ultimately decisive goal of the night. The telling tally, at 12:13 of the third, was enough to offset a brilliant goal from Detroit superstar Pavel Datsyuk just a short while later at 13:59. Marleau’s emergence as a defining player could make this game the most cathartic in San Jose history, especially if the Sharks reach their first Stanley Cup final in the coming weeks against the Vancouver Canucks.
The final point of emphasis and praise should be reserved, though, for the man who truly carried the Sharks in this series. Last year, Antti Niemi won the Stanley Cup as the Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltender, but the Hawks were so solid on offense that Niemi didn’t have to stand on his head. This year, Niemi faced a lot more personal pressure, and after playing very poorly in a first-round series the Sharks somehow survived against the Los Angeles Kings, Niemi was catapulted into the cauldron of taking on the vaunted Red Wings in the playoffs.
After seven games of excellence, it’s quite fair to say that Niemi just turned in the best series of his life. His counterpart, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, was solid, but Niemi stood even taller between the pipes. He stoned the Wings on multiple quality chances in the final three minutes of regulation, with his crowning save a whip-fast glove snare of a wicked drive by Datsyuk with just under 30 seconds to go. Niemi held his team together when it was getting dominated by an injury-plagued Wings lineup that lost Dan Clearly and Todd Bertuzzi during the game, and which entered this contest without scoring threat Johan Franzen. Niemi is playing like a Cup-winning goalie, even more so than last year.
If Niemi uses this series as a launching pad, the San Jose Sharks will reach the first Stanley Cup final in franchise history. All the demons that have followed this organization will soon fall away.
Beating the mighty Detroit Red Wings can and will do that.
By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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