I'll be the first to admit I'm just down right shocked to be writing another Calgary specific series preview in the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
As many will remember, I penned a completely erroneous "Wings in 5" piece about two weeks ago, a fact that was rendered
improbable with a Calgary game one overtime win, and downright impossible when the Flames took a 2-1 series lead with a victory at the Saddledome.
It really feels good to be wrong, but I had reasons, most of the logical, that the Flames' season would come to an honourable conclusion against Hockeytown's Red Wings.
If you follow any reasonable historical analysis, or psychological make up prior to the Wings series the Flames should have been on the chopping block for an experienced team to execute.
Their injury toll was immense, a problem for any hockey team but an out right death sentence for a team with paper-thin depth to begin with. Added to that fact was the "just happy to be hear" approach that one might expect given the jubilant victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.
The script is very clear to those that bother reading it. Make the playoffs, go down valiantly, learn from it, and then come back hard the next year with a better "feel" for what it takes to take that next step.
I guess the Flames aren't fast studies, that or the script never arrived in the mail. Perhaps it came via fax machine making it utterly illegible to a group of guys too hyper active to sit down and decipher it.
Whatever the reason, the next scene opens in San Jose with a slightly more polished version of the Flames standing in teal at the other end.
Can this improbable season continue? I'm almost fearful to bet against it.
The San Jose Sharks fell flat on their "on the way up" faces last season, a fact that cost Darryl Sutter his Silicon Valley job, and many veterans a ticket out of town.
In the end the latter proved to be a true blessing for the upstart Sharks. Gone from the roster were veteran leaders like Owen Nolan and Teemu Selanne, their younger replacements forced to take the ball and run with it.
The Sharks exist on a young forward core highlighted by the speedy Patrick Marleau, the injured Marco Sturm, and the emerging Johnathan Cheechoo. Added to that mix are dependable veterans like Vincent Damphousse - a player on his way out of San Jose last season as well, until he nixed a deal with his veto - Curtis Brown, and Alyn McCauley.
They roll four very honest, hard working, fleet of foot lines at you, and attempt to pressure you all over the ice.
The Calgary Flames are the Sharks minus two. That two is two years of development.
The Flames have the series' best skater in Jarome Iginla, but the young nucleus in San Jose is still a few years away in Calgary, until the likes of Matthew Lombardi, Chuck Kobasew and Oleg Saprykin can become more than just a pleasant surprise when they light the lamp.
The Flames too have their share of veteran support with Craig Conroy, Martin Gelinas and a host of other vets carrying their load in big games. The Flames second line is one to watch with the recently acquired Marcus Nilson and Ville
Nieminen joining the recently reclamated Shean Donovan for an impromptu second line.
EDGE SAN JOSE
If the Flames defence core was healthy this would be one intriguing match up to watch.
Both clubs have very young, very dynamic groups that are the absolute key to the transitional games, and therefore offence of both clubs.
The Shark's core has the likes of Brad Stuart, a former Calgary Hitman, Mike Rathje, Kyle McLaren and Scott Hannan. The group falls within the age range of 24 to 19, very similar to the current group of Flames defenders.
Though the "dor's", Mike Commodore and Steve Montador, have certainly elevated their games and closed a good degree of the gap between themselves and the departed Toni Lydman and Denis Gauthier, you just have to think that experience and the stretching of roles can only extend so far.
The Flames group has the edge in physical play, and wearing opposing forwards down, while the Sharks have a leg up in puck movement and offensive skills, but both groups will not be the Achilles Heal of their club's chances in this round.
SLIGHT EDGE SAN JOSE
The dream matchup, a golfer against his former caddy, leading actor against his under study, or Donald Trump versus the Apprentice.
When the dust settled on San Jose camp this fall the Sharks had starter Evgeni Nabokov in his accustomed role, and Vesa Toskala as the backup forcing Miikka Kiprusoff to the press box for the first month of the season.
In November, on Grey Cup Sunday, Kiprusoff got his escape from popcorn alley when he was summoned to play in Calgary in place of the injured Roman Turek. The rest, as they say, is history.
Kiprusoff had a dream season, rudely interrupted by a knee injury that forced him to the sidelines for six weeks, setting a new mark for goals against average in league history and getting nominated for the Vezina Trophy for outstanding goaltender.
But don't shed a tear for the Sharks, their guy Nabokov, also had a solid season leading the team to a franchise record 104 points.
It's literally too close to call. Nabokov gets the nod in experience, Kiprusoff for the most recent season's play, but we'll go with Kiprusoff and his season of magic.
SLIGHT EDGE CALGARY
Half way through the 2004 playoffs, ... it's time to throw regular season statistics out the window. They just don't matter anymore.
The Sharks have the 6th ranked playoff powerplay and the 3rd ranked penalty kill.
The Flames have the 10th ranked powerplay and the 13th ranked penalty killing brigade.
When you factor chances into things though, it gets a little closer. The Flames drew 61 penalties (league leaders) through two rounds and scored seven powerplay goals. The Sharks drew 56 penalties and scored eight times, a difference of only one.
The discipline index shows the Flames also leading in the calls against them with 62 in two rounds, yielding 11 powerplay goals. The Sharks? Only 49 times, giving up only four powerplay goals.
Darryl Sutter used the officials in the second round, pitting his club against the NHL machine when it came to calls. He won't have that card to play in this series. Will the Flames continue to take penalties at a higher clip than the Sharks or will this series have a look of its own?
EDGE SAN JOSE
This one gets about as close as it can come.
Both guys nominated for coach of the year, and both guiding surprise teams to the conference finals after dragging them up the standings in the regular season.
Neither guy has won the big one, but both have had moderate post season success.
The edge in this one goes to Sutter however, as he has to have some sort of book on the Sharks' core player, despite what he says at the podium.
Plus ... has he made a mistake or not had a decision turn to gold all season?
SLIGHT EDGE CALGARY
Normally the Flames hold one huge intangible over their opposition ... the will to win. Never has that gap been closer in these playoffs than against the San Jose Sharks. Both teams only know one way to play the game ... fast and straight at you.
The Flames do have a marked edge in that Cinderella magic though, something that just may continue through to the end of these playoffs. The 2nd seeded Sharks were supposed to do damage in the playoffs, while the Flames run has captivated first a city and now a good deal of a nation that is tuning in to watch their act.
SLIGHT EDGE CALGRY
A lot of hockey fans play Sports Select with a real purpose. They always pick against their favourite team to force a guaranteed outcome on their ticket. Lose the bet and your team wins, win the bet but your team loses, either way you take something from that experience.
Not for this guy, however.
The Flames have made a believer out of me. They shouldn't win this series, just as they shouldn't have beaten the Red Wings (they should have beaten the Canucks by the way, but that's another story). Why pick against them now?
If this series unfolds the way I expect, the Flames win take this one in six low scoring, quick paced, nail biting games on the strength of the goaltending of Miikka Kiprusoff.
Like the Vancouver series to kick off these playoffs, it's reverse Karma time. The Canucks reached up and knocked the Flames off in 1994, the Flames returned the favour this year. We all know what happened in 1995.
FLAMES HEAD TO THE CUP FINAL AFTER BEATING THE SHARKS IN 6