It took every single second of the 60 minutes of hockey, but the San Jose Sharks proved they are the No. 1 team in the NHL by knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings in thrilling fashion, by a 6-5 final.
The game was the third out of four match-ups between the Western Conference power-houses and it was the first time in both teams were well-rested.
The previous two match-ups saw each team convincingly winning on their home ice with their opponent playing in the second game of back-to-backs.
However, the Sharks victory over the Red Wings on Saturday was the first true test between the foes.
Typically, games that are hyped up around the league don't end up living up to expectations, but as Sharks play-by-play announcer Randy Hahn said, this one "went beyond that."
In a game that had so much intensity that it felt like it was May instead of January, the San Jose Sharks didn't waste any time in getting things started. Just under three minutes into the game, Dan Boyle gave the Sharks an early lead.
After San Jose defenseman Douglas Murray dumped the puck behind the Detroit defense, Sharks forward Ryane Clowe jumped on the puck behind the net and fed Boyle with a pass in the low circle and the Sharks All-Star wired a wrister top-shelf for the 1-0 advantage.
However, the lead would last just 68 seconds as Detroit pounced on the Sharks on the following shift. Valtteri Filppula made a nice cut to the top of the circle on a perfectly executed 3-on-2 rush and fired a quick wrister over Nabokov's shoulder on his glove-side to tie the score.
The game wouldn't be tied for long. Back and forth action continued throughout the entire game on Saturday.
This time it was Joe Pavelski's turn, as after the Sharks center drew a penalty, his line-mate Milan Michalek skated around the Detroit defenders and back-handed a cross-ice pass that Pavelski fired home for the 2-1 lead.
That would be all the scoring for the opening period, arguably the most entertaining 20 minutes of Sharks hockey all season, but the game would get even more thrilling in the final 40.
In fact, the 6-5 final score only partially shows how entertaining the game was to watch, the sequence of goals gives a better parameter of how this game went. The game was 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 3-3, 3-4, 4-4, 5-4, 6-4, 6-5.
After being down a goal going into the second period, Detroit came out strong, scoring twice in the first five minutes. First came a well-executed power play by the team that does it the best; this time Marian Hossa cashed in on a nice set-up from Pavel Datsyuk. The Detroit Winger fired a wrister from the top of the circle and it beat Nabokov on the far-side.
The goal, coming at 1:34 of the second, turned the momentum back towards Detroit as they would take the lead less than three minutes later.
Once again, Datsyuk was the main contributor for the Red Wings, as the play-making center made the Sharks defense look foolish and found a wide open Johan Franzen for a tap-in goal at 4:34.
Facing their first deficit of the game, San Jose got back to work quickly. After getting the benefit of a questionable goalie-interference penalty, Joe Thorton and the Sharks power play went to work and drew another penalty (a slash on the hands of Thornton by Red Wing defensman Andreas Lilja).
Despite not cashing in on the 5-on-3 advantage, the Sharks' second power play unit of Clowe-Pavelski-Michalek-Ehrhoff and Vlasic scored on the 5-on-4.
Michalek made a strong move to the net from the half boards and the rebound of his bad-angled shot reached the point where Ehrhoff sniped one top corner for his first goal in 31 games.
But once again, the Red Wings responded. With a little under five minutes remaining in the middle period, Detroit winger Henrik Zetterberg gave the Red Wings a 4-3 lead.
After a face-off win pushed the puck towards the net, Zetterberg was the beneficiary of a loose puck in the midst of a scrum in front of Nabokov and the All-Star forward backhanded it into the top corner.
However the Sharks weren't done for the second period just yet. With Detroit defensman Brett Lebda in the box for delay of game (purposefully knocking his own net off the moorings), Jonathon Cheechoo got off the snide.
With both Cheechoo and Clowe providing traffic in front of Red Wing goaltender Chris Osgood, Sharks defensman Marc-Eduard Vlasic fired a shot on net.
The puck then squirted loose to Cheechoo got his stick on it and deposited it top corner with 1:05 remaining to tie the score at 4-4.
An epic battle was in full swing going into the final 20 minutes. And rather fittingly as both teams were so evenly matched, the Sharks were finally able to score back-to-back goals as the Red Wings did in the second period. But the Sharks did it when it mattered most.
Just 18 seconds past the half-way point of third period, the Sharks' Milan Michalek gave his team the lead back.
The Czech forward received an outlet pass in the neutral zone, picked up speed, split through the flat-footed Detroit defense, and sniped a wrist-shot top-shelf, over the glove side of Osgood for the 5-4 lead.
However, with a team like Detroit, the Sharks knew a one-goal lead wasn't safe, and this time their captain came through with insurance. Just over three minutes after Michalek's goal gave the Sharks the lead, Patrick Marleau made it 6-4.
The Sharks captain and leading goal-scorer made a nice maneuver to stay onsides while receiving a break-away feed from Clowe (who had four assists on the night) and Marleau tucked it inside the post on the stick-side for the two-goal lead.
True to form, Detroit was not done. One of the reasons the Red Wings are the defending champs is because they never seem to alter the way they play, no matter what the scoreboard says.
With just under two minutes remaining, Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski was able to walk in to the top of the circle and beat Nabokov glove-side to pull his team back within a goal.
The goal would set up the dramatic last 1:56 of the game. It had to end this way. Detroit pulls Osgood for an extra attacker and get two quality scoring chances with the 6-on-5 advantage before the Sharks were able to clear the zone for good and come away with the 6-5 victory.
With out a doubt this hockey game was the most thrilling, entertaining, drama-filled regular season game in the NHL so far this season.
The NHL should have had it nationally televised, because as Sharks color commentator Drew Remenda put it, "send the tape of this game out to anyone who is interested in this game of hockey."
Beating Detroit now gives San Jose sole possession of first place in both the Western Conference and the entire NHL, an astounding 71 points in 44 games.
The Sharks have one more game, Tuesday against Vancouver before the All-Star break. Needless to say, regardless of the outcome of that game, this has been the best first-half to a season in Sharks history.
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