Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Western Conference Quarterfinals Preview

Game #1 Wednesday, April 9th 7:00 PM HP Pavilion, San Jose
Game #2 Thursday, April 10th 7:00 PM HP Pavilion, San Jose
Game #3 Sunday, April 13th 7:00 PM Pengrowth Saddledome, Calgary
Game #4 Tuesday, April 15th 7:00 PM Pengrowth Saddledome, Calgary
*Game #5 Thursday, April 17th 7:00 PM HP Pavilion, San Jose
*Game #6 Sunday, April 20th TBD Pengrowth Saddledome, Calgary
*Game #7 Tuesday, April 22nd TBD HP Pavilion, San Jose

Ok, #2 vs #7, Sharks vs Flames. Not in this exact scenario, but we've been here before.

Once in 2004, which everyone in Calgary remembers, because the Flames took that series, the Western Conference Finals, in 6 games and went on to the Stanley Cup Finals where they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 7 games. That series saw the Sharks as the #2 seed, and the Flames coming in at #6.

The other series would be remembered by everyone in San Jose, as it was the second consecutive year of first round magic for the Sharks. That one was a #2 v #7 meeting, however it was Calgary with the #2 seed, and the scrappy Sharks coming in at #7. In short, Ray Whitney scored a double OT winner in Game 7 at the Saddledome, shocking Calgary and the hockey world for the second straight playoff season.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, as the case may be, those series mean nothing now. Its 2008, #2 San Jose and #7 Calgary. Here's how I see it break down.

The Flames are lead by Jarome Iginla, who notched 50 goals this season for the second time in his career. Iginla, the captain, lead the team in Goals (50), Assists (48), and points (98). He also lead the team in +/- (+27). Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow are his top supporting cast, as Langkow is his centerman, and Huselius takes care of business on the second line. Dion Phaneuf gets it done on the back end, finishing the season with 60 points, good for 5th in the league.

The Sharks have been the Joe Thornton show for the year, as he led the team in all three main offensive categories. His 29 goals and 96 points were just team highs, while his 67 assists lead the league. Milan Michalek has been strong most of the year, and Jonathan Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau have played solid offensive hockey since February.

The teams are pretty even in terms of offensive production, as the Flames outscored the Sharks by just 7 goals in the regular season, 229-222. However, depth may be an issue for Calgary, as one guy (Iginla) was much more involved in scoring than anyone on the Sharks roster. If the Sharks can shut down Iginla, the Flames may struggle for offense.
EDGE: Wash

As mentioned above, the Flames have Phaneuf to lead the blueliners. With him is veteran rough man, Robyn Regehr. After them, however, the D seems to drop off a bit, as Adrian Aucoin, David Hale, Anders Eriksson, Cory Sarich, and Jim Vandermeer are scrappy, but overpowerable.

Without any big names, its easy to say the Sharks defense is lackluster (hell, I say it myself all the time). However, the Sharks finished with the 3rd fewest Goals Allowed in the regular season, so something must be working. Marc-Edouard Vlasic headlines this unknown squad of defensemen, along with Craig Rivet, Christian Ehrhoff, and Douglas Murray. Brian Campbell compliments the defensive side of the defensemen nicely, as he can control the puck well as a defensive maneuver, and is usually mistake free in his own end.

As eluded to above, the Sharks allowed the 3rd fewest goals, a mere 187. Calgary finished a bit lower, 15th to be exact, at 224. The Sharks defense and their system seem to hold the edge here, and look for former 2nd round pick (acquired from Calgary for Miikka Kipprusoff in 2004) Vlasic to play on Iginla all series long. If he can do his job, the Sharks will have the opportunity to win it.
EDGE: San Jose

Not even worth it to split up these amazing netminders, they're both incredible. Both were students of the late Warren Strelow, and both have had strong careers in the league. Kipper has the edge in terms of depth into the playoffs, going all the way to the finals in 2004, but have failed to escape the 1st round in 2 chances since then. Nabby has more experience, leading the Sharks to post-season battle a few times, amassing many post season wins. Nabby has had the better season, leading the NHL in wins, but we've seen before how Kipper can (no pun intended) catch fire in the postseason.
EDGE: Wash

The Flames have done most of their damage 5-on-5 this year, and the numbers have reflected that perfectly. The PP was 19th in the league at 16.8%, and they were in the middle of the pack in PPO (power play opportunities) with 352, good for 16th in the league. The PK wasn't so hot, tied for 20th in the league at 81.4% kill rate, and were tied for 2nd in the league in TSH (times shorthanded) with 388.

The Sharks thrived on their special teams, at least in the 2nd half. The addition of Brian Campbell revitalized the man advantage unit, finishing the season at 18.8%, for 10th in the league. The Sharks have been good at drawing calls, and were 5th in PPO at 372. The PK, however has been strong all year, as the Sharks finished the season atop the league at killing penalties at a 85.8% clip. Just as they don't give up many power play goals, they don't give up many power play opportunities, as they were 28th in TSH at 310.

On paper, it seems pretty one sided here. The Flames commit a lot of penalties, and aren't great at killing them. The Sharks are great at drawing penalties, and are pretty good at capitalizing on them. On the flipside, the Flames draw a fair number of calls, but can't score on many of them, while the Sharks don't get into the box too often, but even when they do, they don't often pay for it. If this continues into the post season, the guys in the teal will look better.
EDGE: San Jose

Crazy man Mike Keenan has won a Cup, mellow man Ron Wilson hasn't. Sometimes, it can be that simple, because once you know how to do something, its real easy to do it again. If you're still waiting for the first sip, however, you just have to keep trying to get it.
EDGE: Calgary

The Sharks are a speedy club with size, the Flames are a big physical team with some speed. Calgary won the season series 3-1, taking both games played in San Jose on OT goals scored by Jarome Iginla, however, the teams haven't played since the Sharks traded for Brian Campbell, and subsequently went 18-2-2 since. Consensus is this is a series the Sharks should win, but if the Flames put the screws to the Sharks hard enough, they might get them to give up, and could scrap out a series win.

I refuse to make a prediction, because I'm that damn superstitious. It should be a good series, I think the Sharks can win it, but if they don't play full 60 minute hockey, it'll be another long summer in Teal Town.

GO SHARKS (douse the Flames)


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