Western Conference Finals Preview
If Sharks can slow down Iginla -- and they will -- they'll play for the Cup
Posted: Thursday May 6, 2004 9:36PM; Updated: Friday May 7, 2004 12:03PM
The storylines off the ice in this series are so plentiful it is hard to decide where to begin. The obvious choice is behind the Flames' bench, where Darryl Sutter coached the Sharks for 5 1/2 seasons before being let go midway through the 2002-03 campaign. He landed in Calgary, eventually adding the role of general manager to his duties.
Having spent that much time with the Sharks, it is safe to say that Sutter knows the personnel. That insight proved invaluable when -- while wearing his GM's hat -- he dealt for goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff in November, sending the Sharks a second-round pick. Sutter knew his current team needed an upgrade in goal if it was to contend in the West, and he knew where to find such a commodity.
With Kiprusoff posting numbers for the ages -- his 1.69 goals-against average was the lowest in the NHL's modern era -- the Flames took off and haven't landed yet. When asked, "Why Kiprusoff?" Sutter said, "He is mentally tough, he is a winner and he isn't 40 years old" -- a reference to the glut of available veterans at the time. What Sutter saw in Kiprusoff from his days in San Jose, the rest of the hockey world has witnessed since his arrival in Calgary.
Kiprusoff has been brilliant through the first two rounds of the playoffs, which he capped off with back-to-back 1-0 shutouts against Detroit. His counterpart for the Sharks, Evgeni Nabokov, likewise has been stellar. His second half of the season was spectacular, and his Game 6 performance in Denver was masterful. Nabokov refused to let the Avs have any life once his team had a lead, which was timely and crucial after the Sharks stormed out to a 3-0 series lead only to see the Avalanche force a Game 6. It was a gut-check effort by Nabokov that mirrored the fortitude shown by his teammates.
On the ice, these squads are very similar, which is not surprising given the Sutter thumbprint evident on both teams. They espouse and execute to a higher team philosophy. Everyone has a role and no one is above the team concept when it comes to accountability. Both the Flames and Sharks are young, energetic and subsequently skate and hit, hit and skate.
The Flames forecheck more ferociously, but the Sharks are better equipped to handle that style with their top four defensemen of Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart, Mike Rathje and Kyle McLaren all big and mobile. The Flames' back line took a hit in these playoffs when regulars Denis Gauthier and Toni Lydman both went down due to injury. Mike Commodore and Steve Montador have played admirably, but the reshuffling of the pairings has put an inordinate amount of situational minutes on Robyn Regehr and Rhett Warrener.
Still, it is up front where these two teams differ the most. Sharks coach Ron Wilson spreads the minutes around liberally, looking to grind the opposition down by rolling out four lines. San Jose had five 20-goal scorers in the regular season -- only Tampa Bay had more with six -- while no one scored as many as 30. Compare that to the Flames; Jarome Iginla tied for the league lead with 41 goals, but none of his teammates reached 20. In fact, the disparity between Iginla's total and that of Calgary's next highest goal scorer (Shean Donovan with 18) was the largest in the league.
But the Flames aren't a one-man team, even though Iginla means more to his team than any single skater in the game today. One of the Sharks' 20-goal guys, Marco Sturm, is lost with an injury, and both teams had the same number of players (nine) reach double digits in goal production. And in the playoffs, no one has scored two bigger goals than Flames winger Martin Gelinas. Still, despite more support than one might at first think, as Iginla goes, so to go the Flames. And he is in for a tougher time physically against the Sharks' top-four defensemen than he has faced thus far.
If that group handles him with the same degree of success as they did against Peter Forsberg of the Avs, San Jose will know the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
Darren Eliot, a former NHL goaltender, is a hockey analyst for SI.com.