San Jose, by virtue of their 2nd place finish (49-23-10) in the West, have drawn a first round playoff matchup with the Calgary Flames. The Flames, who sputtered into 7th place (42-30-10), are expecting a physical series. Coach Mike Keenan believes the winner will be decided in the Thornton-Iginla, Campbell-Phaneuf and Nabokov-Kiprusoff head to head battles.
The Sharks are hot right now, coming into the playoffs riding a strong finish. The Flames, not so much, though they did win the series 3 to 1. It is important to note that two of those games went to OT and another was a one goal game.
In order to better dissect this series, lets look at who has the advantage in a number of categories.
The Sharks are led up front by Joe Thornton and the reinvigorated Patrick Marleau. They have balanced secondary scoring from Jonathan Cheechoo, Milan Michalek and Joe Pavelski and excellent defensive forwards, led by Curtis Brown and Mike Grier. A potential wild card here is Jeremy Roenick, who kept his massive ego in check all year to be a valuable contributor for the Sharks. Ten of his 14 goals were game winners. The biggest variable will be whether or not Joe Thornton can shake the playoff monkey off his back.
The Flames have assembled a rough and tumble collection of forwards built for the playoffs. Led by Jarome Iginla, the Flames can boast one of the top 3 forwards in the game today. They have decent, but inconsistent, secondary scoring in Daymond Langkow, Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay. Tanguay, who failed to hit 20 goals for the 1st time since 2001-02, and recent healthy scratch Huselius are question marks going into the series. The Flames have fast, hard hitting 2-way players in their bottom 6, and they might make the difference. San Jose has a history of folding up tents when the going gets rough (see Torres, Raffi).
Edge: Flames because of their playoff style physical play and experience and because of Thornton’s annual playoff Houdini act.
The Sharks deadline day acquisition of Brian Campbell has paid huge dividends. The 2nd leading scorer on the Sharks’ team, Campbell is the straw that stirs the drink for San Jose. Craig Rivet has been the team’s top shut down defender and is logging big minutes while also chipping in 35 points. The Sharks boast decent depth, with Christian Erhoff, Kyle McLaren, Marc-Eduard Vlasic, Doug Murray and Matt (Hot) Carle rounding out the defence. All (with the possible exception of McLaren) are mobile guys who can move the puck. McLaren was the team’s leading hitter and plays a physical game, which will be key in countering the Flames aggressive fore-check.
Calgary is led by Dion Phaneuf, who is counted on by Mike Keenan to log huge minutes. He will be a fixture on special teams and will be looked to heavily to provide some offence from the blue line. With Phaneuf expected to crawl up Thornton’s ass and stay there, the rest of Calgary’s D will be hard pressed to provide any offensive spark from the back end. Adrian Aucion, Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich round out the defensive corps. While all are physical blueliners and have playoff experience, they cannot match the Sharks in mobility or puck handling skills. Anders Eriksson, Jim Vandermeer and Rhett Warrener provide the depth.
Edge: Sharks because they can provide more offense. This will be key in a low scoring series.
The Sharks have ridden Evgeni Nabokov to elite status in the West. He played 77 games all year and led the NHL with 46 wins. 25 of his wins were in one goal games, so the playoff pressure should not get to him. My concerns here are two-fold. First, Nabokov has been brutal against the Flames, boasting an .849 save percentage and 1 win in 4 tries. Secondly, he might just get tired. 77 games is a lot if you are not a coked up Grant Fuhr, and rescued from the scrap-heap backup Brian Boucher has played in a whopping 5 games. Supposing his muscles aren’t atrophied, he likely isn’t ready for prime time. The saving grace here might be team defense, which allowed only 193 goals all year. Not many shots get through to San Jose’s goal.
The Flames are hoping that perennial standout Mikka Kiprusoff can rebound (no pun intended) from a sub-par season. Regular season stats don’t mean much in the playoffs, and Kiprusoff typically brings his A-game in the spring. If he can improve upon his .906 save percentage, he might win a game all by himself. If not, the Flames won’t be around long. The Flames do have a very capable backup in Curtis Joseph, though we can’t say for sure if he has any playoff magic left.
Edge: Sharks. You can’t argue with the season Nabokov has had, even if he didn’t play well against the Flames.
Ron Wilson is likely on the hot-seat in San Jose despite his regular season success. Having seen his guy out coached by everyone from Craig MacTavish to the computer in NHL ’94, GM Doug Wilson likely won’t stand for another early exit. Its time for Ron to show that he can do more than just fold his arms, grimace and complain at press conferences.
Iron Mike Keenan hasn’t coached in the playoffs since 1997 with the St. Louis Blues. While he seems to have mellowed a little bit, he still has a little fire left as evidenced by the recent scratching of Kristian Huselius. His attempt to turn the Flames into a hard hitting, defence first team has had mixed results. Going forward, its too early to say how he will fare in the 1st round. Hopefully he won’t confuse the bench by frantically screaming for Noonan and Matteau to take the next shift.
Edge: Flames. I am not sold on Wilson’s abilities, and Keenan at least has a track record.
San Jose boasts impressive special teams numbers. Ranking 8th in the league on the PP and 1st on the PK, this may be the advantage that wins the series. They are also defensively sound, ranking near the top in shots and goals allowed. They have only one player, Sandis Ozolinsh, with a Stanley Cup ring, but their core guys have all been together for a couple of playoff rounds. Their top faceoff man is Joe Pavelski, who is hovering around 53%. The Sharks have 13 Canadians on the playoff roster and had only 22 wins at home. Only the Flames were worse in the Western Conference.
The Flames cannot match the Sharks in terms of special teams numbers, ranking 19th and 20th respectively. The Flames are pretty deep experience wise, with numerous players boasting Stanley Cup rings and a few greybeards too boot. Jarome Iginla is their top faceoff guy with a 55% success rate. He is also capable of putting the team on his back when he needs to, and most people would pick Iginla over Thornton to lead a team into the playoffs. The Flames have 17 Canadians on the roster and were not good at home this year.
Edge: Sharks because of their special teams proficiency.
The Sharks win the head to head comparison 3-2, and I think they win this series in 6 or 7. Did I miss anything? Think I am way off base? Just don’t like me? Lets hear it in the comments.
For Illegal Curve, I’m Kyle Kosior