SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Patrick Marleau burst off the blue line just as Ryane Clowe's pass eluded two Detroit defensemen, sending Marleau on a breakaway that ended with a show-stopping goal.
Maybe Marleau was a bit offside, the Red Wings groused. Or maybe the San Jose captain got an impossibly perfect jump, the Sharks insisted, on the goal that eventually decided a regular-season thriller that could echo well into the spring.
The surging Sharks will need every edge they can get to dethrone the Stanley Cup champions, so Marleau's rule-bending fastbreak was an appropriate high point in a 6-5 victory Saturday night that showcased everything so compelling about both the powerful Red Wings and their most obvious threat in the West.
"I think it says a lot about us, because it was one of those games where we had a character test," said Clowe, who had a career-high four assists. "They're the Stanley Cup champs, and they found a way to get a lead several times, but we kept saying on the bench that we had to keep going. ... We [wanted to] go get this one, and we did a great job."
Milan Michalek scored the tiebreaking goal on a breakaway with 9:42 to play, and Marleau got his big break 3:06 later. Brian Rafalski's goal with 1:56 left tightened the final seconds, but San Jose stayed in front to move back atop the overall NHL standings with 71 points, ahead of Boston.
The Western Conference's top two teams were separated by one point entering the night. The matchup was every bit as good as the teams' lofty records and burgeoning rivalry portended, with more lead changes than an average NBA game. Both clubs traded clutch goals and nasty hits with equal vigor.
"That's just a very good hockey game," said Dan Boyle, the All-Star defenseman who scored San Jose's first goal. "High scoring, hits -- it had a lot of everything. Nobody wants to let five goals in our net, but with two good hockey teams out there, the puck is going to get in one way or the other."
Joe Pavelski, Christian Ehrhoff and Jonathan Cheechoo also scored for the Sharks, whose 3-2 loss to Calgary on Thursday ended their streak of 31 straight regular-season home games with at least one point, stretching to last Feb. 14.
Evgeni Nabokov made several of his 29 saves in the waning seconds to clinch San Jose's 21st victory in 24 home games. The Sharks have won two of three against Detroit.
"Both teams realized it was a big game, but I'm sure neither team is going to make much out of it now," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan, a Detroit assistant last season. "It was a pretty passionate game. ... These last two games had a different feel than any we've played this season."
Valtteri Filppula, Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg also scored for the Red Wings, who had earned at least one point in 10 straight games to pull within one point of San Jose. Detroit held a 4-3 lead late in the second period, but San Jose tied it on Cheechoo's power-play goal before taking charge in the third.
The Red Wings were more dismayed by their wasted opportunities than their loss to the Sharks, who have emulated every aspect of Detroit coach Mike Babcock's approach to the game under McLellan's direction.
"I thought they were more physical than us early, and then I thought we responded real well," Babcock said. "They scored on their breakaways, and we didn't score on ours. We had [Dan] Cleary all by himself, and didn't finish. Pav[el Datsyuk] was home free on a breakaway, and didn't finish. There's the hockey game."
San Jose won the clubs' first meeting on Oct. 30, a 4-2 victory that led Babcock to say his team got "Winged" -- but the Red Wings came back with a 6-0 win over San Jose in Detroit last month.
San Jose gained strength in this meeting from a major scrum at the second period's final buzzer in which Sharks All-Star Joe Thornton demanded to fight Franzen after a messy collision. Franzen didn't return for the third period because of what Babcock called a thigh injury, and the Sharks had a renewed vigor that resulted in two mid-period goals.
Michalek put the Sharks ahead when Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart surrendered the puck at mid-ice and left no help for Chris Osgood, who made 35 saves for the Wings. Marleau sneaked behind Detroit's defense 3 minutes later, beating Osgood for his 24th goal.
"It was disappointing, especially being in a big time of the game in a tight game like this. ... It's hard to tell [if Marleau was offside]," Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "I was on the ice. He looked like he had a great step on it."
The Sharks played without defensemen Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich, both out with injuries until after next weekend's All-Star break. Blake, the 39-year-old veteran who has revitalized his career, was hit in the face with a deflection off his stick against Calgary, but the injury isn't as serious as the club initially feared.
McLellan was Babcock's assistant for the previous three years, and the coaches will be back together next weekend at the All-Star game -- though McLellan will be the nominal boss, thanks to the Sharks' slightly better record. ... The clubs' final regular-season meeting is Feb. 25 in Detroit. ... Red Wings D Chris Chelios sat out again after playing Thursday night in Los Angeles. Chelios, who turns 47 on Jan. 25, has played in just six games since returning from injured reserve in mid-December.