For all the blame Patrick Marleau has shouldered for past post-season failures by San Jose, it was only fitting that his winning goal helped the Sharks avoid their biggest collapse yet.
Marleau got his first point of the series when he knocked home a rebound with 7:47 to play and then made the key defensive play in the closing seconds as the Sharks managed to knock out the Detroit Red Wings on their fourth try with a 3-2 victory Thursday night in Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal series.
"For him to end up with the winning goal was pretty special for our team and for him," coach Todd McLellan said. "I think the monkey may be off his back for the next series. ... He was a difference maker tonight."
Devin Setoguchi and Logan Couture scored in the first period and Antti Niemi made 38 saves for the Sharks, who had lost three straight potential clinching games before eliminating the Red Wings for the second straight year in the second round.
San Jose avoided becoming the fourth NHL team to lose a series after winning the first three games. A franchise known for its playoff flops avoided a colossal one and now heads into its second straight Western Conference final.
"There's a lot of doubters who said we probably couldn't do this," captain Joe Thornton said. "But that's two years in a row we beat a pretty good team. We're a pretty good team now, too."
The Sharks get two days off before beginning the conference final Sunday in Vancouver against the Canucks, who also won a Game 7 after blowing a 3-0 lead in the first round against defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago.
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg scored for the Red Wings, who fought valiantly to the end but were unable to complete their bid for an historic feat. Detroit furiously pushed for the tying goal in the frantic final minutes, but couldn't beat Niemi again -- even after getting a late power-play chance.
"It's not easy being down 3-0 and having to win four games," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "I felt like we had the upper hand. But you never knew the outcome of any game until the end. At the end, it's still disappointing to win three games and come back here with a chance to win or tie it in the final minutes and then fall short."
The 41-year-old defenceman, who has won four Stanley Cup titles with Detroit, must decide if he wants to come back for a 20th NHL season.
"I'm going to take my time before making a decision," Lidstrom said. "We'll have our meetings and go from there. I'm going to take the whole year into account. I'll take about as much time as last year. I'll meet with the coaching staff. It's been tough the last couple of years."
The much-maligned Marleau, who was called "gutless" by former teammate Jeremy Roenick after Game 5, gave the Sharks the breathing room when he poked a rebound of Setoguchi's shot into an empty net behind Jimmy Howard to give San Jose a 3-1 lead.
But as tough as it was to eliminate the Red Wings in the series, it was just that hard to close out this game. Datsyuk beat Niemi with a great individual effort to make it a one-goal game with 6:01 remaining. The Sharks had to kill off a power play, when Torrey Mitchell was called for slashing with 5:03 left, to preserve the lead. Niemi then made a stop on a tricky shot by Datsyuk in the final minute.
After a scramble in front of the net, Marleau broke up a scoring chance for Patrick Eaves and then got the final clear, sending the fans into delirium and giving the Sharks their first sense of relief as the clock ran out.
"It was just nice to have it over and have us on top," Marleau said. "They played great the whole way through. It was just nice to be able to shake hands and come back in here."
The Red Wings fell behind 2-0 in the first period but that deficit surely wasn't daunting to a team that overcame a 3-0 hole in the series to force this Game 7.
Detroit dominated the second period despite finishing it without three of its top forwards, with Johan Franzen missing the game with an ankle injury, Todd Bertuzzi getting knocked out in the first period with an upper body injury, and Daniel Cleary getting helped to the locker room after appearing to hit his head on the ice after a collision with teammate Jiri Hudler.
"That's a huge chunk of team that was missing," coach Mike Babcock said. "We would love having some more minutes out of those guys."
The Red Wings outshot the Sharks 17-6 in the period but managed to get only one puck past Niemi, who made tough saves on Niklas Kronwall and Cleary in the first half of the period.
Zetterberg got Detroit on the board when he beat Niemi with a backhand at the end of a three-on-two rush with 6:50 left in the second. The Red Wings kept the pressure up the rest of the way as the Sharks looked desperate for the period to end, icing the puck five times.
Detroit got the final 10 shots in the period as the Sharks couldn't manage even to get one after Setoguchi's attempt with 7:48 to go. But Niemi was able to preserve the lead heading into the third, robbing Zetterberg with his glove late in the period.
"We had to get it done, especially in the playoffs," Zetterberg said. "We should have created a few more chances."
The crowd was frenzied at the start for what was being billed by many as the biggest game ever at the Shark Tank, cheering "Beat De-troit! Beat De-troit!" That energy from the fans was matched by the Sharks, who were thoroughly outplayed in their Game 6 loss in Detroit two nights earlier.
They scored on a power play midway through the period when Thornton threaded a perfect pass from behind the net to Setoguchi, who beat Howard with a one-timer for his fifth goal of the series. Then after killing off two Detroit power plays, San Jose got a second goal when Couture stole an outlet pass from Zetterberg, and in the same motion beat Howard with a wrist shot from the faceoff circle with 59 seconds left in the period.