Sharks Stifle Ghosts of the Red Wings

SAN JOSE - The ghosts were knocked around the ice Thursday night. So were the Detroit Red Wings. But for the San Jose Sharks, it's never been what happened in the present, but what didn't happen in the past.

Maybe it's about to change.

Detroit calls itself Hockey Town. This is Paranoia Town. It exists in the figurative shadow of San Francisco 50 miles down the coast, even though it has 200,000 more people, a suburban giant that exploded from the prune orchards to dominate the software business.

And to lose in the Stanley Cup playoffs, even with teams that, like last year's when the Sharks had the best regular-season record in the NHL, were supposed to win.

The significance of what took place in the opener of the Western Conference semifinals, the Sharks defeating the Red Wings, 4-3, at HP Pavilion (of course the arena would be named after a computer company) is not to be dismissed.

The Sharks and their fans, and a passionate and noisy group those fans are, feared the opposite.

There's not much hockey presence in Northern California. While the Sharks are the best of the six pro franchises by the bay, consistently successful, they also have the smallest footprint, or should that be smallest dorsal fin?

Back East a kid floods the street in winter and goes skating. Out here, a kid grabs his board, heads to Santa Cruz, and goes surfing. Or pulls out his 6-iron and goes golfing. There's no hockey tradition in the land of sunshine and silicon. There's just hockey regret.

Every time it seems the Sharks are destined to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, and persuade the six million citizens from San Jose to Petaluma to jump on the bandwagon, they get upset. And in turn their fans get more upset.

San Jose, the team not the town that has a population of 940,000 give or take an iPhone or two, won the first round a few days ago, while Detroit didn't qualify until a seventh-game victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday night.

The Red Wings arrived at San Jose's Norman Mineta Airport past midnight, breaking the 11 p.m. curfew, being fined $2,500 - just because a city is big, doesn't mean it thinks like a big city - and had to be weary. Meaning the Sharks, who had lost the first game of four consecutive playoff series, had to be wary.

They were. They were also aggressive. Almost before you knew it, San Jose had a 3-0 lead. All the bad memories appeared to have been cleansed, although San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov, the Russian Olympian said, "Three-0 with 20 minutes gone I don't get excited; 3-0 with a minute left I get excited.''

A center named Joe Pavelski has been a hero, and a goal-scorer for the Sharks, picking up two more Thursday night to increase his total to seven goals in seven games.

Pavelski isn't yet to be discussed with such Bay Area stars as Joe Montana, Barry Bonds or Rick Barry - hey, most people around here don't know a slap shot from a cheap shot - but he's making progress. Wednesday morning, the San Francisco Chronicle, which barely acknowledges the Sharks' existence most of the year, ran a massive feature on Pavelski.

So, for once, it's all going beautifully for the Sharks. Yet they dare not exhale.

"We wanted to get right to this series,'' said Nabokov. There was a question whether Game 1 would be Thursday night or delayed until Sunday.

"We kept hearing how many times we lost the first game of a playoff series. We wanted to find out quickly if we were ready to play.''

They found out. Detroit found out. "I thought Pavelski played well,'' said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. He had some real nice looks, and the puck came to him.''

Babcock wasn't quite as complimentary about the officiating. In the opening moments of the third period San Jose had a two-man advantage and scored to go ahead, 4-2. "They put their shots in the net,'' he said matter of factly.

Whether they put the agonies of past seasons in their rear view mirror remains the issue. And the Sharks must fight that battle at every press conference.

"It's good we could go up 1-0,'' agreed Devin Setoguchi, who had San Jose's third goal, "but at the same time we want to stay focused and keep a level head. We saw what happened with the Montreal-Washington Series. The Capitals led, 3-1, and lost. That can happen.''

Around here they need no reminders.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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