SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Two weeks ago, the Vancouver Canucks arrived home facing a Game 7 many people didn't think they were going to win. After blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Chicago Blackhawks, it prompted some serious hand-wringing and self-doubt among their legion of fans.
OK, the Bay Area isn't paralyzed by anxiety the way hockey-mad Vancouver was, but a loyal Sharks fan base that has provided sellout after sellout at HP Pavilion is agonizing ahead of Thursday night's seventh and deciding game against the Detroit Red Wings. After all, this is a fan base already battle-scarred from the struggles of playoffs past. Becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to lose a series after being up 3-0 would rival any of the previous playoff stumbles, including the 2009 first-round loss to eighth-seeded Anaheim following a Presidents' Trophy regular season.
But the Sharks can restore their pride with a gut-check victory Thursday night and prove to an army of naysayers that they aren't the fragile group that wilts under pressure. And San Jose can find inspiration from the very team they hope to beat in the Western Conference finals.
Like Vancouver early in Game 7 against Chicago, the Sharks must come out strong and impose their game on the never-say-die Detroit Red Wings. That strong start by the Canucks seemed to give them confidence and just as importantly made the home crowd part of the arsenal.
The Canucks, however, were coming off a strong Game 6 showing in Chicago, an overtime loss that many believed should have been a victory. At the very least, that's what the Canucks players truly thought, and that's what mattered. The Game 6 performance stabilized the Canucks' psyche after back-to-back shellackings by the Hawks.
This is where the script diverges with San Jose. Unlike the Canucks, the Sharks delivered a performance in Wednesday's 3-1 game 6 loss that defenseman Douglas Murray labeled as "embarrassing." And so, the Sharks can't be encouraged by where their team game is trending heading into Game 7.
Like the Canucks, the Sharks face a team whose core has Stanley Cup rings and is currently oozing in confidence after posting three straight wins. Detroit is three years removed from its last championship, while Chicago was the defending champ, but the Wings' know-how is further seasoned by experience.
Can the Sharks still win Thursday? No question. What's important for San Jose to remember is most people figured this would be a seven-game series. What they have to try to ignore is how the series got there. Game 7 is at home in one of the NHL's loudest rinks. Win Thursday and all is forgiven, if not completely forgotten.
But is that really true?
It says here the Sharks may have already blown their chance at beating Vancouver and reaching the Stanley Cup finals. Sure, beating the Wings on Thursday would be gratifying; but by blowing three straight opportunities to bury the Wings, the Sharks will be a tired and beat-up team with only two days between rounds. But that argument is for another day, one the Sharks would gladly take on if they can finally dispose of the Wings.
A loss Thursday night will be a giant step backwards for a Sharks team that set a goal to reach the next level after a final four appearance last season. A win holds off the playoff demons they thought they chased away.
The Wings, meanwhile, are one win away from adding another milestone on a 15-year résumé that remains the standard in hockey, a modern-day dynasty that refuses to fade away.
Just three games ago, we questioned if Nicklas Lidstrom might retire if he thought the Wings had slipped a rung below the Vancouvers, San Joses and Chicagos of the world after what appeared to soon be back-to-back playoff exits in the second round. Oops. Hold that thought. Win or lose Thursday, the Wings must have proven to themselves that with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Jimmy Howard at the helm, they will remain in the upper echelon for a few more seasons.
That's why there's so much more riding on Game 7 for San Jose. They can't afford this kind of setback.