Having watched the highlights of the last time the Flames and Sharks tangled this past weekend (thanks Bingo) you can't help but think of the comparisons that can be made between then and now. How have these two teams changed in the past 4 years? How does that impact what our view of the series from then to now? San Jose is still playing the same type of game in my opinion, but have they become more dangerous with the additions of players like Joe Thornton and Brian Campbell? Are the Flames anything near the type of team that stormed the HP Pavilion in the spring of 2004?
If you look up and down the lineups you can't help but think that the Sharks should win this series, maybe not as handily as the Red Wings, but they should be able to beat Calgary, on paper. How the Sharks deal with that pressure, and the pressure of being labled Stanley Cup contenders will be interesting to watch.
All these answers and what should be one heck of an entertaining series starts on Wednesday night!
For the Sharks to Win
San Jose has a lot of ammunition to win this series. They have an all world goaltender who proved this season that he's capable of being a difference maker. Nabokov will be a major factor if the Sharks are going to win. He must bring his best game to the table and prove that he can match and even better the play of his former teammate down at the other end of the rink.
We now move from goaltending out to defence. Brian Campbell brings what almost any team covets, a puck moving defenceman who can make the first pass to the forwards, something the Flames are certainly missing, and have been for years. But offence aside, the Sharks weakness is going to be the play of their defence. Taking care of Jarome Iginla will be the single most challenging task for the Sharks and the question is whether or not they have the defencemen who can do it? Someone will have to step up and shut him down.
The greatest strength of the Sharks is the deadly compliment of forwards that the Sharks boast. They are young, fast, and talented. Joe Thornton, Milan Michalek, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and Joe Pavelski are the names to watch out for. But don't forget that the Sharks boast one of the best third line players in the game in Mike Grier. The Sharks will have to use their speed up front, puck moving from the back end, and lay waste to the Flames special teams to win.
Lastly, the Sharks boast one of the best road records in the league. Calgary needs to make the Saddledome a brutal place to try and get a win. The Saddledome, and by that I mean the Flames fans, need to be intimidating for the Sharks.
For the Flames to Win
For Calgary to have a chance in this series they need Miikka Kiprusoff to be at the top of his game. Just like last season against Detroit, Calgary will be led by the play of their goaltender. If Kiprusoff can give his teammates the chance to win the rest is up to them. He's always proven to bring some of his best games against his former club, and to expect any less is probably wrong. Him and Nabokov will make this series a very close one.
The single biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Flames will be special teams. Calgary MUST at all cost stay out of the penalty box. That will be difficult if they want to bring a physical game though. The Sharks powerplay that features Thornton, Michalek and Campbell will simply destroy the Flames if they get careless. The forwards must also play a disciplined game and make sure that they support the defence in order to minimize the effects of the much faster Sharks team.
Obviously Calgary will need Jarome Iginla to be a major factor since he's probably the most dangerous player on either team, no offence to Joe Thornton. The Sharks don't have anyone in their lineup that, right now, can effectively shut down Iginla and he needs to take advantage of that.
Calgary likely has a core of veteran players that need to step up in the desperate times that are the Stanley Cup playoffs. Owen Nolan is the man that many will look at to bring some of that warrior mentality that is required to win in the playoffs, but also the Stanley Cup experience that players like Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Alex Tanguay, Cory Sarich, Stephane Yelle, and Craig Conroy can bring to the table will be large.
Lastly the Flames desperately need contributions from more than just the first line in order to win. You can't help but think that Craig Conroy got hurt at the perfect time for Matthew Lombardi to step into the second line centre role that has seen him step up his offensive game with Kristian Huselius and Owen Nolan. If that line can become a threat, and some good fore-checking from players like Dustin Boyd, Eric Nystrom, David Moss and Wayne Primeau can create some havoc, the Flames have a better chance in this series.
Series Outcome: SHARKS in SIX
There are many who will say throw out the regular season when it comes to the post-season, and sometimes that's true. But this Calgary team has been an enigma all season long and I don't expect that to change any time soon. Jarome Iginla netting his 50th goal of the season was huge for the Flames captain, because it likely drops a lot of pressure from him and he can simply go out and play his game, with that mentality you can't help but think he'll be successful.
In the end however the difference between the Sharks special teams, and the Flames special teams, plus the road performance of the Sharks leads this writer to predict a final result of San Jose taking it in six. This isn't to say that San Jose will walk all over the Flames. Each of the games will be close, but the Sharks just line up with a more consistent team that is probably better prepared to win. Calgary will make it hard on San Jose, but the Flames just don't have what it takes for me to think that they win.
Forecasting the Rest of the West
Wings vs Predators: PREDATORS in SEVEN. The Wings may boast the best record in the NHL, but they seem to have more trouble playing in their own division and this helps out the Predators. This one will be closer than most expect.
Wild vs Avalanche: AVALANCHE in SIX. The Wild were scared of playing Calgary in the playoffs and you could see it watching the final game of the season between these two teams. In my opinion, that was a mistake. They are better prepared to play the inconsistent bunch that is the Flames than the Avalanche. Colorado will make them pay for that.
Ducks vs Stars: DUCKS in FIVE. We can only hope that these two teams spend seven games beating the living hell out of each other, but I don't see that happening. The Ducks are like a return to last year’s playoff team and they will handily beat the Stars.
Forecasting the East
Canadiens vs Bruins: BRUINS in SEVEN. Call it a match made in heaven. Montreal has completely owned the Bruins this season and last, but this series is just asking for an upset and I'm happy to oblige. I can see the Canadiens taking the first two games easily, but then something clicks for the Bruins and they win three straight, Montreal evens it out but Boston shocks the hockey world and sends the Montreal media into a mouth foaming blame frenzy that we will be talking about all summer long.
Penguins vs Senators: PENGUINS in FIVE. The Penguins rolled over and played dead on the last game of the season against the Flyers so they wouldn't have to play the Flyers, which is too bad because it would have been a great series. Without Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fischer, plus the incompetence of Bryan Murray, the Penguins will roll the Senators quickly.
Capitals vs Flyers: CAPITALS in SEVEN. This one could go either way, but the ugly-ass Cinderella that Alexander Ovechkin has become to get his team into the playoffs courtesy the divisional title will be the difference maker here; the only caveat being if the Flyers figure out to shoot glove side on Huet...he’s terrible with that glove!
Devils vs Rangers: DEVILS in SIX. This is the least interesting match up to me. The Devils were completely owned by the Rangers during the regular season, as the Devils managed just one win (in a shootout on Sunday). But the Rangers just don't have the players I suspect will be able to get it done in the playoffs. The pressure is on the Rangers to win, and that's just asking for trouble.