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With so many close games, Sharks-Wings a true toss up

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Associated Press
5/11/2011 8:52:20 PM
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Depending on how the numbers are crunched, a compelling case can be made that the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks both have the edge going into their improbable Game 7.

In a playoff season full of overtimes, one-goal games, and road wins, this one truly is a toss-up.

San Jose can look to the fact that only three NHL teams have blown a 3-0 lead and failed to advance, but Detroit can shoot holes in that one by simply mentioning that the Philadelphia Flyers did it last year against Boston. The Red Wings are the second team in this wide-open playoff season to force a Game 7 after dropping the first three games -- a rarity in itself.

Chicago took Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver to the brink in the first round, and the Blackhawks nearly kept alive hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champions, but fell short of joining the short list of ultimate underdogs when they lost in overtime of Game 7 after winning three straight.

Ah yes, overtime.

There have been lots of those games in this year's playoffs -- 20 in the first 69 games. Here is where you can add a check mark in the Sharks' column. San Jose is 5-0 in overtime in this post-season, including two wins against Detroit as it built what seemed to be an insurmountable lead.

"They're having a good run," Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg said of the Sharks. "Once you start winning a few games in overtime you start believing in yourself."

Even though three NHL teams have come all the way back -- the most among the major North American leagues -- the odds are still astronomical. Between 1976 and 2010, of the 112 series in which a team led 3-0 none needed a Game 7 before the Flyers' win. There have been 167 leads of 3-0, with only 1.8 per cent of teams blowing them.

Only the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who rallied against the New York Yankees, have done it in baseball history. No NBA team has pulled off the feat.

The Sharks will be facing a great deal of pressure when the puck drops in San Jose on Thursday night. The Sharks already carry the baggage of several years of disappointment and underachievement in the playoffs, and the weight of possibly suffering the worst of collapses certainly won't help heavily criticized stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

Throw in the fact that road teams are 37-32 in these playoffs, and the tide turns again in the favour of the title-filled Red Wings.

"I don't know what it is, but we're very, very calm in the dressing room before overtime," Thornton said earlier in the series. "We know we've got a lot of guys in this room who are capable of ending the game, and I think that gives us a calmness, a confidence that we're going to get it done."

Road teams are 13-7 in overtime in this year's playoffs and have won five straight. Three of the 11 completed series ended in overtime, including two in Game 7. Both of those were won by the home teams -- Vancouver and Boston in the first round. San Jose took out Los Angeles on the road in overtime of Game 6 on a goal by Thornton.

There has been an overtime game on 17 of the 28 playoff dates, including a stretch of nine straight days and 15 of 16.

"You're seeing overtimes because there's a lot more parity. Teams are a lot more closer," said Nashville coach Barry Trotz, whose team lost to Vancouver in the second round. "For the most part, we were all four, five points between anywhere from five through four through eight. There's not much separation and it's tighter checking, goaltenders step up, therefore you're running into a lot of overtime games.

"Teams can win on the road. It's not as big an advantage as some people think sometimes."

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, the longtime former captain and Hall of Fame player with the Red Wings, agrees about the parity in the league but has another theory why visiting teams are having so much success.

Back in the not-so-distant past, arenas -- affectionately referred to as barns -- had their own charm and quirks and intimidation factors, whether it was the fear of facing off against the Broad Street Bullies in the intimate Philadelphia Spectrum or taking on the bruising Bruins in the old Boston Garden, where the rink was a bit smaller.

"Pretty much every building now is the same," Yzerman said. "All the buildings are beautiful but there is nothing that really differentiates them. Everything is 200 by 85 (feet), the benches are pretty uniform, so I think some of the things that gave a team a perceived home-ice advantage don't exist in the new buildings."

The first five games of the Detroit-San Jose series were decided by one goal. It would've been 6 for 6, except the Red Wings scored an empty-net goal with just over a minute remaining on Tuesday night to provide a bit of "breathing room" on their way to forcing a Game 7.

In four of the games, the winning team trailed in the third period. The teams have been tied or within a goal for 90 per cent of the series. So expect another tight one Thursday when the Red Wings and Sharks play for the chance to meet the Canucks in the Western Conference finals.

"I don't think there is a big difference between the No. 1 seed and the No. 8 seed," Yzerman said. "The teams are pretty close. For the most part there is good goaltending throughout all the teams, teams play well defensively and it's hard to score.

"Teams are well-prepared, the coaches spend hours and hours going over the opposition. There are no surprises. You know exactly how the other team plays. The preparation and the competitive parity around the league leads to all these games going right down to the wire."

The fifth-seeded Lightning pulled off the biggest comeback this year, rattling off three straight wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins to turn around a first-round series they trailed 3-1. Tampa Bay won Games 5 and 7 on the road to advance and set the stage for a second-round sweep over top-seeded Washington.

Now the Lightning will face Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bruins pulled off a comeback of sorts, too, by shaking off the disappointment of last year's collapse to Philadelphia to get to the NHL's final four this time.

"It seems like once a year throughout the playoffs there is a significant comeback," Yzerman said. "The more comebacks that happen, the more teams believe, 'Hey, we can do this' or it's possible.

"The games are so close. Every game is a one-goal game. In the Pittsburgh series we lost Game 4 in overtime, but really played a good game. It came down to one shot and it went in. The San Jose-Detroit series is the same way. Every single game is one goal and could go either way. The teams that fall behind, as long as they don't get discouraged, and make any adjustment they see fit, there's always hope."

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AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker and Larry Lage contributed to this report.

Jonathan Ericsson and Ian White (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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