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Sharks smell blood in water ... too bad it's theirs

by | CBSSports.com Columnist

If you ever wanted to see if there was such a thing as a hyperkinetic zombie, San Jose, Calif., is the place to be Thursday night.

A full house of 17,562 humans will watch in unalloyed fear, panic and dementia-challenging angst as their favorite hockey team tackles the task of cheating all the laws of sports physics by winning the seventh game of a series they led 3-0.

Grade A: Players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg make sure the Wings are never out of it. (Getty Images)  
Grade A: Players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg make sure the Wings are never out of it. (Getty Images)  
But that's San Jose's problem. For the other boys, the Detroit Red Wings, life could not be better. They are playing with the casino's money because they know how to play the tables.

There is something about pedigree that is often overlooked, especially when one considers the Los Angeles Lakers and the way they expired earlier this week. And that is, if you still have something in the tank, there is something to institutional memory. The Wings have that, maybe more than any other team in North American professional sports, and that memory manifests itself best at times like this.

Down 3-0, dead to the world in a Western Conference semifinal series with the Sharks, the Wings have combined skill, luck and the knowledge that still breathing is always a start to not only get back in this series, but to become a prohibitive favorite going into Game 7 because ...

Well, because they know how to do this as few teams in history do.

They have made the playoffs for 21 straight years. They have won four Stanley Cups. They know when they are the better team and when they are not. They are oozing with the confidence that only teams that have oozed with confidence before possess.

They don't have to think. San Jose does. That alone is an extraordinary advantage, one that cannot be quantified but has the full force of numbers.

Oh sure, there is still the matter of doing things that hockey teams have to do to win games -- attack, defend, win battles, shoot pucks, punch a guy when the ref isn't looking. San Jose still has players who can do that.

But the Sharks seem to have stopped doing it, while the Wings are doing it constantly. The laws of objects in motion and objects at rest tend to come into play at a time like that.

And yet, that didn't really work for Chicago in Game 7 of its series with Vancouver in the opening series. The 'Hawks just ran out of go as Vancouver got its second wind. Detroit has had all the wind there is to have for four games now.

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In fact, that's the one thing that makes you not abandon the Sharks even now. The run of play is so Detroit's, and hockey is such a counterintuitive game, that San Jose could have a counterpuncher's chance just by virtue of still having punches to throw. They're not the way to bet, mind you, not the way they've backed up toward the third rail here, but just as Detroit wasn't dead a week ago even though it looked all gray, lifeless and, well, Detroit-ish, San Jose still isn't dead, too.

There might be a lesson in all this, and that is that teams tend to be worse at closing than they used to be, because the athletes may lack of the assassin's taste, or that the teams are harder to separate. Or maybe momentum is becoming one more cheap literary device that has less to do with reality than it used to.

But history has been so devalued in the past 20 years that maybe it is making a comeback now. Philadelphia came from three down to beat Boston a year ago, and now there have been two close calls this spring. Maybe they just don't make playoff teams the way they used to.

Detroit is hoping to prove that Thursday night. San Jose just wants to keep its pants up and laced long enough to foil the run of play one last time. Different wishes for different fishes, I guess.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com


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