Second-seeded San Jose finished 10 points better than sixth-seeded Calgary in the regular season, but the Sharks only won one more game. These teams are not only evenly matched, their personnel is very similar in all areas. With both teams rested, we should get a lot of heavy checking, especially in the early part of the series.
The Sharks can hurt you in many ways. Patrick Marleau is the one forward with game-breaking ability, but Jonathan Cheechoo and playoff rookie Niko Dimitrakos, as well as the quietly able Nils Ekman, can all chip in offense. And veteran center Vincent Damphousse is playing the way he played in postseasons more than a decade ago. The Flames, for all the dramatic work being done this postseason by Martin Gelinas, are still heavily reliant on Jarome Iginla to score and create offense. Like San Jose, Calgary also has a number of good two-way forwards, especially center Craig Conroy, who plays alongside Iginla.
Two hard-hitting groups. At 24, 6-foot-3, 225-pound Robyn Regehr is blossoming as the leader of a willful Flames defense. Regehr is delivering his usual big hits (watch for Calgary's Rhett Warrener and Andrew Ference to do the same) while also playing responsibly and contributing offense. The Sharks' defense is as punishing as the Flames' and similarly constituted. The leader this playoffs has been shaggy Scott Hannan, who shut down Keith Tkachuk in the first round and Peter Forsberg in the second. The one-on-one battle between Hannan and Iginla should be long and hard-fought. It will be one of the delicious subplots to the series
Pick your poison, shooters. Both teams' keepers have been stealing games at crucial times in the playoffs, and you can expect each one to dominate at least one match in this series. Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, in his first playoffs as a clear No. 1 starter, is carrying over the skills that led to his record-setting stinginess in the regular season. Kiprusoff has played his best in nerve-wracking times late in games and in series. San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov remained impressively undaunted when Colorado's superb forwards began attacking him.
Both teams have been killing penalties very effectively -- the Flames' only real cracks against the Red Wings occurred when Detroit took advantage of successive 5-on-3s late in a Game 2 they had all but put away. The Sharks have made the penalty kill a priority all season, and that's paying off. San Jose is a bit deeper and savvier on the power play, but it needs to watch out for Iginla and Conroy, both of whom are dangerous short-handed.
While Sharks coach Ron Wilson is a fine tactician and a sly motivator, Flames coach Darryl Sutter is the in-your-face type who strives to get his players to exhibit the hellbent team-first style that Sutter himself thrived on as a player. Both coaches are succeeding in getting their teams to play at the highest level. And both teams have responded to short bouts of poor play with renewed commitment. Because he's a bit sharper on the fly, Wilson has the edge.
Sutter takes on a team that he helped to mold over more than six seasons before he was let go last year. The Sharks adored Sutter, and seeing him behind the opposing bench could be a distraction early in the series. Of greater importance is that the Flames have battled through difficult spots all postseason, rallying courageously from deficits, while the Sharks have not really been tested. San Jose is about to find out just how demanding a playoff series can be.
Expect at least a six-game series and don't think about counting out the Flames until the final game is won. Ultimately, the Sharks' depth should carry them through to a six- or seven-game win and a spot in the finals.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.