After spotting San Jose a 3-0 lead in the series, the Red Wings roared back to win three straight and force a Game 7 in their Western Conference Semifinal series.
They had a chance to become just the fourth team in NHL history to win a series after losing the first three games. Instead, they fell behind 2-0 in the first period and, despite a desperate comeback, fell 3-2 to the Sharks at HP Pavilion on Thursday night.
The disappointment ran deep.
"It's tough to realize the season's over, especially when we believe in the room we could have done something really good this year," forward Henrik Zetterberg said. "We had a good team and had a good feeling."
The Red Wings dominated play in Game 6 from the outset, outshooting the Sharks 18-6 in the first period and 45-25 overall as they forced Game 7 with a 3-1 win.
But didn't take long for the Wings to realize they was facing a much more aggressive, energized San Jose team at the Shark Tank. The Sharks outshot the Red Wings 17-11 in the first period and took a 2-0 lead on goals by Devin Setoguchi and Logan Couture.
"We fell behind in the first period and we had to battle to get back in the game pretty much from that point on. I thought we battled hard, but we had a couple of breakdowns where they scored," Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said. "They took advantage of it. They're that good of a team that they're going to score on their chances."
San Jose had gone 0-for-10 on the power play while losing three straight games to Detroit, but the Sharks capitalized on their first power play of the night to take a 1-0 lead at 12:20 in the first period on Setoguchi's goal.
The Sharks made it 2-0 when rookie Logan Couture swiped the puck from Zetterberg deep in the Wings zone and snapped a shot high to the short side past Jimmy Howard from the right circle with 59 seconds left in the period.
"We knew they were coming," Zetterberg said of the Sharks' furious start. "We were prepared, we wanted to go out and take charge, but instead I think they took the momentum and we ended up a little bit on our heels from the beginning."
The Red Wings played their second straight game without forward Johan Franzen, out with an ankle injury. The Sharks, on the other hand, got power forward Ryane Clowe back after he missed Game 6 with an upper-body injury.
Clowe, one of the most emotional and physical Sharks, made an obvious impact on the game early, throwing his body around with abandon, often times in front of the net or in the blue paint – he earned a penalty in the first for roughing Howard.
The injury news got worse for the Red Wings when forward Todd Bertuzzi suffered an upper-body injury in the first period that ended his night after just 3:53 of ice time and five shifts. And it got even worse late in the second period when forward Danny Cleary collided with teammate Jiri Hudler and took an elbow to the face.
Cleary was face-down on the ice for a few minutes as trainers examined him, then was helped off the ice with 5:48 left in the second. At that point, the Red Wings were down to 10 forwards -- and, counting Franzen, missing three of their best.
"Our guys came here, we fully expected to go to Vancouver," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "There wasn't any question. In the end, they're the team that's going to go. That part's disappointing, but I don't think we left anything out there. I thought our guys played as hard as they could. I don't' want to make any excuses, but without Cleary, without (Bertuzzi) and without (Franzen), that's a chunk of the team right there, but I thought our kids hung in there and battled. I thought we had the better of the play."
A minute before Cleary's injury, the Red Wings cut the Sharks lead to 2-1 on Zetterberg's backhander from the slot. The Red Wings rejected a Sharks rush and raced the other way on a counterattack. Valtteri Filppula hit Zetterberg with a cross-ice pass, right-to-left, and Zetterberg buried a perfectly placed shot in the upper left corner, beating Antti Niemi on his stick side.
Zetterberg's goal made it a one-goal deficit, and the Red Wings regained some valuable momentum. Then Cleary collided with Hudler, and they went to scramble mode again. Despite all the injuries and adversity, the Red Wings outshot the Sharks 17-6 in the second period and 40-30 for the game.
The Sharks scored a huge goal at 12:13 of the third, Patrick Marleau banging home a rebound of a Setoguchi shot. That gave San Jose a 3-1 lead, but the Red Wings refused to quit. Pavel Datsyuk quickly answered with a highlight reel goal. He got a step on defenseman Douglas Murray and fired a sharply-angled backhander from the right circle that beat Niemi to the far top corner.
"Even when we were down 2-0, I kept saying to our guys, ‘Just 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. When we gave up that third goal we scored right away, and I thought we still had lots of opportunities. It didn't go in."
And the Wings didn't make history.
"It doesn't matter how you cut it, it's disappointing losing," Lidstrom said. "Coming back the way we did, being down 3-0, playing real hard and believing in ourselves, finding a way to force it to a Game 7 and just coming up short by a goal -- it's hard."