Detroit showing more grit than in years past

DETROIT -- It wasn't much as altercations go, a little dust-up at the end of a second period dominated by the Detroit Red Wings en route to a pivotal, dominating 4-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks.

But as San Jose defenseman Craig Rivet disentangled himself from Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg, Zetterberg's linemate Tomas Holmstrom launched himself at Rivet.

Holmstrom ended up with an extra minor penalty -- which the Wings killed off, as they did all six Sharks power plays Saturday -- but the message reflected in that moment was emphatic and well worth whatever risk was involved.

Holmstrom's defense of the talented Zetterberg reinforced in a very tangible way that this is a vastly different Detroit Red Wings team than the ones that have failed to emerge from the second round of the playoffs the past three playoff seasons.

"We just believe we're going to keep coming," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said after his Wings had taken a 3-2 series lead in what was by far the most lopsided game in the series.

Game 6 is Monday night in San Jose.

Before the game, San Jose head coach Ron Wilson was asked whether, in a series as painfully tight as this Western Conference semifinal has been, it really all comes down to goaltending. Surprisingly, Wilson said no.

"It's competing and the will to win," Wilson said.

Those were the qualities Wilson was looking for from his team after the Sharks blew a 2-0 lead in Game 4 and allowed the Red Wings to the tie the series at 2. Early on, he was pleased with what he saw as the Sharks pressured the Wings and finally opened the scoring at the 4:53 mark, when a long Marcel Goc wrist shot eluded Detroit netminder Dominik Hasek.

It marked the eighth time in 10 playoff games the Sharks have scored the opener, and the fourth time in this series. But the best team during the regular season at converting opening scores into victories has managed to lose three times in this series, including Saturday's soul-sapping loss.

"I thought we played a great first period, and for some reason we came out in the second and all of a sudden we're passive again. To be honest with [you], I don't have an explanation why. But they were pushing the pace," San Jose netminder Evgeni Nabokov said.

"You know we're playing against a team, highly skilled, veteran oriented, they want to keep working. They're going to work a 60-minute hockey game where we're not playing 60 minutes right now, and it's hurting us," Rivet said.

"I think we realize the situation we're in. We realize that we have played very well at times and poorly at other times," said the former Montreal defenseman, who was acquired at the trade deadline.

In a series pitting two fine hockey teams, it's difficult to know whether this is a case of the Sharks lacking the killer instinct or the Wings simply tapping into some deeper reservoir of will that has trumped whatever the Sharks have done. Maybe it's both. Regardless, the Sharks find themselves staring into the playoff abyss for the first time this spring.

Last year, when the Sharks were in a similar position against Edmonton, they flinched and were gone in six games after blowing a 2-0 series lead. History and their own shortcomings suggest the challenge of coming back against the Red Wings will be even more daunting.

Is there an air of desperation permeating the Sharks' dressing room?

"I hope so. It's do or die now," defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "There should be a desperation in our system here, and I'm sure you're going to see it come Monday."

If these past two games are any indication, it may not matter what the Sharks bring to the table, because the Wings seem to have an answer for it.

Wilson has described the Wings as "relentless," and Saturday was no different.

Trailing 1-0 after the first period, the Wings outshot San Jose 14-4 in the middle frame. They tied the score when super-agitator Holmstrom, who seems not to be suffering any ill effects of the eye injury that kept him out of the first three games of this series, made a move in close and linemate Zetterberg finished the play by tapping a loose pack into the open net.

The Wings then took the lead when Nabokov's attempt at a clearing pass bounced into Pavel Datsyuk. And with Nabokov trapped between the face-off circles, Datsyuk shoveled the puck into an empty net.

"It's a tough decision. I came out, I saw my options, and obviously I see three guys coming," Nabokov said. "I took my chances, and obviously it wasn't good.

"But, it was 2-1 at that point. There's no way that we could say, 'Oh, that's the reason why we lost.' We have to show the character and we have to be better. We have to prepare to be better at home because it's not going to be easy. I think it's even going to be harder than on the road."

The knock on the Red Wings over the past couple of springs has been that they aren't tough enough. Not necessarily physically tough enough, although that has been part of it, too, but mostly mentally tough enough. When Edmonton began to win the physical battles and score timely goals in the first round a year ago, the top-seeded Wings had no answer.

This year, they appear to have all the answers. Indeed, this is a team that seems to thrive on adversity and uses it as some sort of fuel.

Early in the first period, for instance, the Wings lost valuable defenseman Mathieu Schneider for the rest of the season with a broken wrist sustained in a collision with San Jose captain Patrick Marleau.

Babcock said the team has talked throughout the season about being resilient and reacting well to adversity.

"But talking about it is only part of it. You've got to do it," Babcock said.

Case in point was the penalty kill that followed the Holmstrom-Rivet melee at the end of the second period.

In the past, the Wings might have given up a power-play goal and allowed the complexion of the game to change with it.

Saturday, the Wings didn't allow the Sharks a good scoring opportunity for the two minutes. Then, moments later, they were given a power play of their own, which they quickly converted thanks to a Mikael Samuelsson one-timer off a nice feed from Zetterberg.

Holmstrom closed the scoring 2:28 later, again on the power play and, again, off a delightful feed from Zetterberg.

"The more often you come from behind, the easier it is to believe that you can do it," Zetterberg said.

"Knowing that somewhere in your head, it's easier to keep going forward."

Asked whether he thought this team had more character or grit than last year's squad, Zetterberg suggested it was too early to make such pronouncements.

"That's a question that is better to ask after the season," Zetterberg said.

For the Wings, the end of this season seems a long way off.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com