Sharks prove they can win in the clutch

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Joe Thornton led the way, Patrick Marleau scored the winner and the San Jose Sharks didn't fold when most of the hockey world figured they just might.

Talk about exorcising all kinds of demons in one night.

San Jose's thrill-a-minute, 3-2 victory in Game 7 over the never-say-die Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night was delivered under intense pressure and scrutiny after the Sharks gave up a 3-0 series lead before gutting it out with a clutch performance.

"There's a lot of people that did not want us to win this game," San Jose veteran blueliner Dan Boyle said. "Detroit ... they've got their little aura, I don't know what the word is. But I'm sure a lot of the hockey world wanted to see Detroit come back and win this series.

"We just stuck together. Certain teams have that thing about them [with] some of the guys they have over there with [Nicklas] Lidstrom, [Pavel] Datsyuk and [Henrik] Zetterberg. I think a lot of people want to see the Sharks lose. That's something. We just had to come together and rally."

San Jose rallied behind a dominating performance from its captain, Thornton, who came flying out of the gates and set up the first goal by Devin Setoguchi. Jumbo Joe still has his detractors, most notably in Boston, but by now even they will have no doubt noticed his transformation. He is bringing it this postseason, playing a strong game on both sides of the puck.

Then, Marleau scored the eventual game winner 12:13 into the third period, a tap-in goal that came after he went hard to the net.

"He's been taking a lot of heat, and he was there when we needed him and scores the series- and game-winning goal," Boyle said.

Marleau showed a little more emotion than usual on the goal. It was one of the biggest goals of his career but also his first point of the series.

"Time of the game, time of the series, it felt good," Marleau said. "And I hope there's a lot more of those."

In the end, having home ice for Game 7 might have been the sliver of a difference in finally declaring a victor in this series because there sure wasn't much separating these two Stanley Cup contenders. It's the first time in NHL history that six of the seven games were decided by one goal; if you take away Darren Helm's empty-netter in Game 6, they all were one-goal affairs.

"I can't remember being in this close of a series, every game basically a one-goal game," Lidstrom said. "I've never been part of such a tight series."

The veteran Red Wings have nothing to regret in this series; they played like champions, even after they were down two men Thursday night when Daniel Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi both left with injuries.

"Our guys came here and fully expected to go on to Vancouver without any question," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "In the end, they're the team that's going to go and that part is disappointing, but I don't think we left anything out there. I thought our guys played as well as they could."

The Sharks dominated the first period en route to a 2-0 lead, but, as you might expect, the Wings charged back with a goal in the second period to set up a riveting third period with the season on the line for both clubs.

"Even when we were down 2-0, I told our guys, 'Stay with it, we'll get one here,'" Babcock said. "I thought we were in the driver's seat, to tell you the truth, just because we were coming after them. We gave up that third goal but got one right away and thought we still had lots of opportunity, but it didn't go in."

"Right now, it's just an empty feeling," Niklas Kronwall said. "We gave it everything we had, but that third goal we gave up, we couldn't come back."

The Wings now will ponder an offseason that once again includes a massive decision by Lidstrom. Will the six-time Norris trophy winner hang them up?

"I'm going to take my time and my decision here in the next little while," he said. "I'm not sure how long it'll take, but we'll have our year-end meetings and go on from there. ... I want to take everything into account, the regular season and playoffs."

The Sharks now have knocked off Lidstrom and the mighty Wings for the second straight postseason, but this time San Jose heads to the Western Conference finals with a different frame of mind. The Sharks can deny it all they want, but there was a sense of satisfaction by just reaching the West finals last season. Now, they view the West finals berth as a highway stop before the Stanley Cup finals.

"We still haven't reached our goal," Marleau said. "We still have a month to play."

Those back-to-back series wins against the Wings have raised the Sharks' confidence level and strengthened their belief that they can win big games and, quite frankly, beat any team. The question is, do the Sharks have any juice left in the tank?

The top-seeded Canucks have been resting and waiting at home since eliminating Nashville on Monday night. The Sharks were stretched to seven, tested both physically and mentally by the Wings. Can they recover in time for Sunday's Game 1?

"Vancouver's played 13 games and so have we," said Sharks winger Ryane Clowe, who returned after missing Game 6 with a suspected concussion. "It's a new series and a new start. We were mentally prepared for a long series with Detroit coming into it. We knew it was going to be tight. It can't get much more down to the wire as it did.

"I know Vancouver had more days off than we will get, but I think two days is good. It's plenty. We're ready."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.