In a battle befitting the past two Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Anaheim Ducks 4-3 in decisive Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal at Joe Louis Arena on Thursday night.
Daniel Cleary broke a 3-3 deadlock with three minutes remaining as Detroit clinched the best-of-seven series 4-3.
"It was a fun game to be a part of, considering the outcome," he said.
Next up, the Chicago Blackhawks, an Original Six rival, in the conference final.
"For us to be in this situation is a real positive," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said. "But we have a hungry Chicago team waiting for us."
Henrik Zetterberg chipped the puck into the crease, where Cleary was credited with whacking into the net as he was pushed away by Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf.
"We knew it was going to be a tough series," Cleary said. "It was tight every game.
"They played us well. But at the end of the day, we found a way to get it done."
Video replays showed the puck sitting behind the right pad of Ducks netminder Jonas Hiller, and that Cleary didn't so much push the puck across the goal-line as he pushed Hiller's pad into the net — taking the puck with it.
"Zee was in the corner, made a good play, put it on net, I stayed with it and got it under Hiller," Cleary told CBC Sports.
"Cleary pushed his pads," Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle claimed. "But it is moot at this point."
It was Cleary's third goal of the playoffs and kept alive Detroit's quest for back-to-back Stanley Cups, something last accomplished by the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
Anaheim hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history in 2007.
"What made this series so hard — and what people don't understand — the people that have won know what it takes to win," Babcock said. "That's what made them so hard to get rid of."
It marked the third time in the NHL's modern era that the two most recent league champions had met in the post-season, the others being the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in 1971 and Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers in 1991.
All three series went the maximum seven games.
"In my opinion, we outplayed them in every game and their goalie stood on his head," Babcock said.
Jiri Hudler, Darren Helm and Mikael Samuelsson also scored and Zetterberg had two assists for the second-ranked Red Wings.
Teemu Selanne and Corey Perry led the eighth-seeded Ducks with a goal and an assist apiece, and rookie Bobby Ryan completed the scoring.
Asked if he had played his final game in the NHL, Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer told CBC Sports: "Yeah, it is possible for sure … I haven't thought about it, so I will now and I will try to make a decision quickly."
When the same question was posed to Selanne, he responded: "I don't have a crystal ball. Let's see."
Detroit outshot Anaheim 17-6 in the first period, but the Red Wings needed a pair of acrobatic saves from Chris Osgood to keep the Ducks off the scoresheet.
The veteran netminder slid across the crease to make a spectacular stop on James Wisniewski, and later kicked aside a screen shot from Scott Niedermayer with several skaters jostling in the crease.
Not to be outdone, Hiller stood tall at the other end as he smothered a dangerous wrist shot from Pavel Datsyuk with Getzlaf in the penalty box for holding.
Getzlaf was serving a slashing minor, his second penalty of the period, when Hudler re-directed Johan Franzen's pass for his fourth goal of the playoffs with 4:17 left.
"You got guys diving all over the place, so you have to [adjust] a little bit," Getzlaf told CBC Sports between periods.
Helm made it 2-0 on a breakaway just 77 seconds into the second period, beating Hiller low to the stick side for his second goal this post-season.
But Anaheim remained undaunted.
Selanne shook off a heavy hit from Red Wings rearguard Brad Stuart to trim the deficit to 2-1, tucking a loose puck inside the right post for his fourth goal at the 14:50 mark.
Samuelsson promptly replied for the Red Wings, burying Datsyuk's backhand pass for his third at 16:23.
Forty-nine seconds later, Perry was left unchecked at the right post and swept in a rebound after Osgood made a pad save on Chris Pronger's initial one-timer from the slot.
"We started skating a little bit more," Getzlaf said.
The Ducks tied it at 3-3 less than eight minutes into the third period, courtesy some sloppy coverage by Detroit's top defensive pairing of Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Lidstrom.
Ericsson got tangled up with a broken stick behind the net as he tried to clear the puck and coughed it up in the corner, where Perry eluded Lidstrom and set up Ryan for an easy tap-in and the tying goal.
"When you're that close with so few minutes left, it is tough to lose," Scott Niedermayer said.
The Red Wings hadn't been pushed to seven games since 2002, when they clobbered Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche 7-0 in Game 7 of the conference final.
"It was a tough series, probably one of the toughest we have played in a long time," Osgood said.
"It was the best series I have been in," Babcock acknowledged.
Detroit is 12-7 in Game 7s; Anaheim is 2-2 all-time.With files from The Associated Press