SAN JOSE, Calif. - The Detroit Red Wings are no longer the Western Conference's biggest playoff underachievers of recent years - and they might have even found a team to take their place.
Mikael Samuelsson scored two first-period goals, Dominik Hasek posted his 13th career playoff shutout and the Red Wings rolled into the conference finals with three straight victories in their second-round series, beating the deflated San Jose Sharks 2-0 in Game 6 last night.
Hasek made 28 saves in his first shutout of the spring for the top-seeded Red Wings, who are headed to the conference finals for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2002.
The Red Wings open the next round Friday at home against the Anaheim Ducks.
Detroit had won just one playoff series in the previous three seasons despite winning at least 48 games in each, earning two Presidents' Trophies as the NHL's best regular-season team. But the Red Wings, who finished second overall this season, finally parlayed their veteran experience into playoff success against a young opponent that took
another postseason of lumps.
Evgeni Nabokov stopped 20 shots for the Sharks, but the best regular season in franchise history ended in another mystifying collapse after San Jose controlled most of the series' first three games.
The Sharks were up 2-1 in the series and held a one-goal lead in the final minute of Game 4. But they yielded a tying goal in the final minute of regulation, followed by a heartbreaking overtime score - and the next two games weren't close, with Joe Thornton and captain Patrick Marleau failing to spark their club past Detroit's steady forwards and patchwork defense.
Chris Chelios had assists on Detroit's goals while playing nearly 30 minutes on his 45-year-old legs. Fellow defenseman Brett Lebda returned to the Red Wings' lineup after a six-game absence with an ankle injury - just in time to replace Mathieu Schneider, who's out for the postseason with a broken left wrist.
But the Red Wings took charge of the series against a younger, stronger opponent despite their injuries. Such shifts are no surprise to San Jose's fans, who have watched their club blow the 2004 Western Conference finals against Calgary and last season's second-round series against Edmonton in similar fashion.
The Sharks blew a lead in each of their first three losses to Detroit, but the Red Wings made certain of the clincher early - and a litany of mistakes and missed chances kept San Jose from coming back.
The Red Wings scored first on a breakaway set up by a beautiful lead pass by Johan Franzen. He positioned the puck perfectly for Samuelsson, who rolled past stumbling defenseman Matt Carle and dangled until Nabokov went down for an easy score.
A few moments later during a Detroit power play, Hasek misplayed a puck straight to Mike Grier in an error reminiscent of Nabokov's turnover to Pavel Datsyuk in Game 4. But Grier circled the empty Red Wings net and then completely missed it, with his off-target shot hitting diving defenseman Niklas Lidstrom.
Samuelsson got his second goal eight seconds before the first-period buzzer, thanks to another defensive blunder. Samuelsson kept the puck on a 2-on-1 break and beat Nabokov cleanly on the glove side.
After managing just two assists in Detroit's first 10 playoff games, the Swedish wing has three goals in two games.
When Ryane Clowe missed another open net midway through the second period, the Sharks' fate seemed inevitable. San Jose lost four straight games to finish last season's second-round series against Edmonton, including a 2-0 shutout loss in the clincher.