In the NHL's Original 30, chances like this might not come along that often.
All players grow up dreaming of the opportunity to make it to a Stanley Cup
final, to play for glory in front of packed arena's and delirious fans.
Yet there are many players who spend entire careers, even Hall Of Fame careers,
not only never winning a championship but never even getting a sniff of one.
So we enter this San Jose/Calgary Western Conference final with two groupings of
players who, by and large, have never gotten this far, many still early in their
careers, many only now beginning to believe the impossible might actually be
possible, the silver thought of carrying a Stanley Cup around a frenzied rink
beginning to tickle the backs of their minds.
It's only half way there but really only a quarter way to simply get to The Big
Show, the oh so rare a chance now within grasp.
Lose now and you'll die a death of a thousand regrets.
Yet this is a series that appears so close that it may well come down to the
intangible of which side wants it more.
As Wayne Gretzky once said in those heady days of the early 1980's, when it was
still unclear if the Oilers had the "right stuff," only those willing
to sacrifice the most can emerge with the right to play for a championships.
"No guts, no glory," was how The Great One put it.
How appropriate for this series.
GOALTENDING - Can you really say there's much of a difference between
Evgeny Nabakov's .941 save percentage and 1.34 GAA versus the numbers of his
doppelganger Miikka Kiprusoff, who sports a .931 save percentage and a 1.92 GAA?
Not really, particularly considering Kiprusoff was facing two of the highest
scoring teams in the NHL and was able to boast two 1-0 shutouts to eliminate
Detroit. There's another story besides the numbers though, Kiprusoff carrying on
his play from the regular season and being a virtual wall when the game is on
the line and when he gets the right help from his team, with three 2-1 victories
this playoff year and three shutouts, two by scores of 1-0 to eliminate Detroit.
We'll give the modest advantage to the Vezina Trophy nominee. Advantage Calgary.
DEFENCE - Toni Lydman is skating in practice again and may appear in this
series, giving Calgary a skillful boost on its blueline but the Flames are also
missing Denis Gauthier, another regular, for the duration. It might also be fair
to observe that Mike Commodore and Steve Montador have been playing a little
over their heads . . . . but that's what you might have expected the Flames
would have needed to advance as far as they have. The Sharks, meanwhile, have
one of the better quality defence corps in the NHL, with no particular stars but
a very solid one through six grouping. Mike Rathje, Brad Stuart, Kyle McLaren
and an emerging Scott Hannan won't be taking a back seat to Rhett Warrener,
Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr and Andrew Ference/Lydman. San Jose gets the nod
until Lydman shows up. Advantage San Jose.
FORWARDS - Chris Simon is likely back for the Flames and it seems
probable Scott Thornton will return for the Sharks but San Jose may be without
another key performer, Selke nominee Alyn McAuley. On paper, once you get by the
big shooters, the Sharks appear to have more pure offensive depth with skillful
guys like Johnathon Cheechoo, Alex Koryluk and Niko Dimitrakos but the Flames
have been getting solid production and a great two way effort from their second
line of Ville Nieminen, Marcus Nilson and Shean Donovan. Similarly, for every
Mike Ricci the Sharks can counter with a Stephane Yelle, although San Jose's
Wayne Primeau has also been impressive this playoff year. Even Calgary's
apparent advantage with the NHL's top shooter, Jarome Iginla, is a little dodgy
with Patrick Marleau notching seven goals in 11 games, although most would
concede the Calgary captain brings more to the table than just goals. Still,
overall, this looks to be a dead heat so long as McAuley is out of the mix.
SPECIAL TEAMS - Calgary has been periodically dreadful killing penalties
this post-season, yet seemed to hold the fort when they needed to in the clutch.
San Jose appears to have more consistency in this area, giving up only three
goals in 43 man disadvantage opportunities so far in the post-season. The
powerplays for both teams haven't been particularly brilliant, the Sharks with 8
power play goals and the Flames with seven. In a series that figures to be low
scoring, penalty killing might be a decisive element. Advantage San Jose
COACHING - Two Jack Adam's finalists going at each other in the Western
Final is a good indication that neither appears to have any particular advantage
of the other. Some might characterize Darryl Sutter as a screaming cow patty
kicker just off the farm but if there's one thing we've learned in the last year
and a bit it's that he's as smart and learned in the ways of the game as anyone
in the business, including his more technically oriented counterpart Ron Wilson.
In the case of the latter, he's had a spectacular rebound from being drop-kicked
out of Washington and appears to have mellowed a bit with an out of control ego
now under a tighter mask. He took a floundering San Jose and molded it into one
of the more dramatic one season turnarounds in the last decade. Advantage None
INTANGIBLES - They've already beaten the President's Trophy champion and
the Northwest Division champion and they've done it by wading through a ton of
adversity. San Jose hasn't necessarily had to pass the character test yet and
may be fully capable of doing so but the Flames go into this contest already
knowing what they're capable of in the most extreme of conditions. That's worth
its weight in gold.
The formula that has gotten Calgary to this point remains obvious and relevant.
The Flames are 8-1 when surrendering two goals or less, when they're giving the
mistake-free Kiprusoff opportunities to see all the pucks directed his way. He's
been shelled for five goals in three games in the post-season already, however,
and the Flames are 0-4 overall when they've given up three or more goals,
usually after abandoning Kiprusoff to to his own fate.
The key matchup in this series might be the battle between Jarome Iginla and
Scott Hannan, the latter a young defenceman emerging from the shadows and
beginning to make a name for himself in the NHL. The Flames probably like that
matchup a whole lot more than they did Iginla's pairing against Mattias Ohlund
and Darian Hatcher where the Calgary captain blistered the former and struggled
to get around the latter. Still, Iginla was in on both winning goals in
Calgary's two 1-0 victories to close out the Detroit series. It will be Hannan's
dubious job to keep Captain Clutch at bay. Advantage Calgary.
CALLING THE SERIES - Many prognosticators, including this one, will
concede a modest advantage to the Sharks in certain areas but the Flames seem to
have a swaggering, special quality about them right now that can allow an
inferior team to overcome all the odds stacked against it.
That's if you're conceding Calgary is the inferior team which might be a stretch
given San Jose won 43 games in the regular season and Calgary 42.
This is easily a pick 'em series, with no shame in arguing either side of the
coin, yet I like the wind of destiny pushing the fanny of Calgary. So
improbable. So unlikely. So . . . . unFlamelike.
So I'll stop underestimating them as I did in the first two series of this
playoff year and call the Red to move on for a chance at the brass ring.