Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Western Conference Quarterfinals
(2) San Jose Sharks v. (7) Calgary Flames

Offense: Both teams were littered with underachieving forwards this season, as neither Patrick Marleau nor Jonathan Cheechoo lived up to their billing for San Jose while Alex Tanguay and Craig Conroy turned up stinkers of a season for the Flames. The difference here is that, while Marleau and Cheechoo began lighting it up like their former selves after the trade deadline, many of the Flames, particularly Kristian Huselius, faltered during that same timespan. Edge: San Jose.

Defense: All the focus on this series with regards to the Flames has been placed upon Calgary superstar Jarome Iginla and for good reason: The Flames' captain scored a Western Conference-leading 50 goals this season. But the player the Sharks should arguably be most afraid of scored 45 fewer goals than Iginla this season: defenseman Robyn Regehr. While you can never know for certain, my gut feeling is that last season's Flames first-round loss to Detroit would have been a lot different with Regehr in the lineup. Perhaps the best shutdown defenseman in the league, Regehr is the cornerstone of the Flames' blueline and will take liberties with Joe Thornton and Milan Michalek if he isn't consistently hounded by the Sharks' forecheckers. He'll likely pair with Cory Sarich on a shutdown pair, allowing Dion Phaneuf to play with Adrian Aucoin on the second unit. But while Calgary's defense looks better on paper, the Sharks' mobile corps centered around deadline acquisition Brian Campbell and combining the right amounts of physicality (Douglas Murray, Kyle McLaren), skill (Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic) and a mix of both (Craig Rivet) seems superior. Edge: San Jose.

Goaltending: The netminding matchup provides the greatest intrigue in this first-round series. Both All-Star stoppers and disciples of the late Warren Strelow, Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff had, for the most part, starkly different seasons. While Nabokov had his best season to date, leading the league in wins, representing the Western Conference at the All-Star game and receiving serious Vezina and Hart Trophy consideration, Kiprusoff faltered in his first season under Mike Keenan, posting sub-par seasons and failing to record a single shutout until February. Regardless, Kipper has proven that he is a reliable playoff goaltender, though so has Nabokov. Goaltending, like almost all other facets of this series, will be close but the man who has had the vastly better campaign gets the nod here. Edge: Sharks.

Overall: The regular season means little with regards to the playoffs. However, while the Flames failed to win more than two straight from early February on, the Sharks went 18-0-2 down the stretch. Whether that means the Sharks and Flames will continue their respective trends through the postseason is entirely a crapshoot, but with far superior depth and a goaltender that has proven he can steal games, San Jose looks like the safe pick here, but it should be a close one. Prediction: Sharks in 6.

Note: Photo courtesy PJ Swenson.

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