Next game could change entire series

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The stakes are as simple as can be Sunday night.

Either the San Jose Sharks wrap this up in five games for the second year in a row and get some much-needed rest, or the Detroit Red Wings jump back on the plane knowing they've actually got a shot.

Like the Chicago Blackhawks heading into Game 5 at Vancouver in the first round, the Red Wings can finally make this a real series with a win Sunday.

"This is the big one," greybeard Wings forward Kris Draper said Saturday after practice. "I think Game 5 is huge here. We're coming into their building and they obviously want to end the series. We're going to do everything we possibly can to force Game 6. We're going to lay it all on the line."

The Sharks are no dummies. They want to nip this thing in the bud and avoid waking up a giant, just as the Canucks did with the defending Cup champion Blackhawks in the first round.

"We missed an opportunity last game," star Sharks blueliner Dan Boyle said. "Obviously with the travel and the wear and tear, you don't want to prolong this any longer. They deserved to win last game, they were a better team than we were. We just need to get back to what got us at least our first two wins. We need to get back to playing that type of hockey and hopefully we'll see that tomorrow."

The fact is, after being fairly outplayed in the opening two games, the Red Wings continued to narrow the gap in the following two games. And the Sharks know it.

"We weren't good enough to win that game [Friday] and we probably weren't good enough in Game 3 [Wednesday] as well," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "I thought the gap got a little wider in Game 4 and we have to close it.

"[The Wings'] intensity level went up and we didn't meet. They did a lot of good things in our zone, throwing pucks at the net and getting second opportunities. Those are things we were doing well in Game 1 and Game 2 and we've got to get back to do some of that ourselves."

Where the Wings have improved is their ability to maintain a more sustained attack and forecheck; it was nearly nil in the opening two games, but found its mark in Games 3 and 4 in Detroit. The last five minutes of the third period Friday night were Detroit's greatest push of the series.

"What we talked about is that once you sit back on teams, it's like safe is death," Wings forward Dan Cleary said. "You can't sit back. You saw L.A. was victim of sitting back [against the Sharks]. We have to stay aggressive and take it to them no matter what the score. And that won us the game last night, that kind of mentality."

A year ago, the Sharks snuffed out any life in the Wings' sails, winning 2-1 here in Game 5 to avoid that long cross-country trip back to Detroit for Game 6. The Wings can smell it. They know if they can somehow take Sunday's game, suddenly the heat turns up on the Sharks and San Jose's confidence is shaken just a little.

Anyone who witnessed the first round saw just how scary a proposition that became for Vancouver, as much on the ice as off it. That's the kind of mental game the Wings no doubt feel they can start to exploit if they can somehow head home Sunday night having won two straight.

"They want to win a game and we want to win a game," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Obviously, they're up 3-1. They're in a different situation than our situation. But the reality is, as you know, as these things go on and a team can crawl back into it, things get tighter and tighter. That's just the facts."

These Sharks, however, have shown more mental strength than any recent San Jose squad. Even in defeat Friday night, they fought valiantly back from a 3-0 deficit and looked poised and composed in doing so.

"All year we've had a pretty level head," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "We never got too high when we were winning or too low when we were losing. So we just need to stay focused, stay patient, and just keep your mind about yourself."

For the Wings? It's the good ol' cliché from here on out.

"It's a one-game mental motto," said Cleary. "Which I think is the only way you can look at it. If you look at the actual task at hand, it's almost overwhelming. Just one game, one game, one game."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.