History now there for Wings' taking

DETROIT -- The Detroit Red Wings are one win away from the kind of playoff history they honestly believed was within their grasp three games ago.

The San Jose Sharks? We'll get to them shortly.

The morning after San Jose took a 3-0 series lead, Detroit winger Dan Cleary told us with a straight face, "If any team can come back from 3-0 down, why not the Detroit Red Wings?"

Three wins later, including a dominating 3-1 victory in Game 6 on Tuesday night, Cleary was clearly clairvoyant.

"Listen, we've got a group that's won together, we've got a good core here and been together a long time," Cleary said in a pumped-up dressing room. "The thing is, we weren't kidding ourselves; we really felt we could do this. We focused on one game, not thinking we had to win four. Just win one, win one, win one -- and now we're going to Game 7 and it's going to be a fun game."

We had a similar chat after Game 3 with Ken Holland. He didn't want to be quoted at the time, but the wily Red Wings GM truly felt his team had the wherewithal to make this a series.

"When you look at what Chicago did against Vancouver and what [did] Philadelphia against Boston last year, when you see Tampa winning the last three against Pittsburgh, I think it's going to happen more now because there's just so little to choose between the teams," Holland told ESPN.com on Tuesday night.

The NHL's playing field is indeed as tight as ever, and there's no better microcosm than this Western Conference semifinal series.

"Every game but tonight was decided by one goal, and tonight was an empty-netter," Holland said "It's been a battle of will and determination. They found ways to win the first three games, and we found ways to win three. Now it's winner take all."

Winner take all is what the Sharks are focused on now. As they boarded their flight home Tuesday night, they hoped to leave behind the mental baggage accumulated from three straight losses.

The Sharks are one loss away from being only the fourth team in NHL playoff history to collapse after leading a series 3-0.

But they're not looking at it that way. The Sharks see a chance to host and win Game 7 and reach the Western Conference finals. And the fact that they blew a 3-0 series lead?

"It doesn't matter how we got here; it really doesn't. What matters is how it ends," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said.

Sports psychology will get a serious work-over between now and when the puck drops at 9 p.m. ET Thursday night. The Sharks, like the Vancouver Canucks in the first round against Chicago, must prove their confidence hasn't been shaken by dropping three straight after being up three-nil.

"Just ask Detroit -- they lost three in a row and their confidence wasn't frayed," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "We're a confident group, still. You work 82 games to get home ice in these Game 7s. Now we just have to make it work."

If their confidence hasn't been dented, it should be. Seeing a perennial championship contender such as Detroit come back with three straight wins should have any team shaking in its skates.

The Sharks held a meeting after the game during which some players spoke.

"Yes, but we're going to keep that inside," defenseman Douglas Murray said.

Perhaps they told each other to completely forget Tuesday night's debacle. The score was close, but the effort was not.

"You can't take much out of this game other than 'Nemo' [Antti Niemi] was great," Murray said. "We put up an embarrassing effort. It's nothing to do with X's and O's. It's about whatever it takes to get yourself ready. We weren't skating, we weren't making quick plays, we weren't doing anything right."

Outshot 45-25 and severely outclassed for the first time in the series, the Sharks absolutely laid an egg.

"This was unacceptable," Murray said. "But we have to move away from it. We've got an important game Thursday."

In the end, regardless of how this series got here, we've got the seven-game series many of us predicted. And quite frankly, probably the best series of the playoffs. Folks in Chicago and Vancouver will argue that, but this series hasn't had the blowouts that series featured. This one has been closely played, air-tight hockey between two bonafide Stanley Cup contenders. No other team in the Eastern Conference could hold a candle in this series.

"I didn't think we should have been down 0-3, we could have won them all, so could have they," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "That's how tight this has been. Not much to pick between the teams."

Right now, however, only one team looks composed.

"One of the things we're fortunate to have is the leadership and the calmness of the guys who are a bit older," Wings blueliner Niklas Kronwall said. "They have been around. There's no panic at any time. We just stuck to the game plan for 60 minutes.

"That's the only way you can do it. If you don't believe, then you're done. ... We believe in each other and what we have in here."

Do the Sharks? We'll find out Thursday night.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.