Since this is the time of the year when every sports blogger in sight wants to give you their predictions on the playoffs, I'll spare everyone from simply writing a predictions post. Instead, I'll write an analysis and prediction of the series I'm most interested in (duh): (2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Calgary Flames, to start on Wednesday night at 8.
The Flames drew the Sharks on Sunday afternoon after the Avalanche beat Minnesota to take the 6th seed and face Minnesota. In my opinion, they could not have drawn a tougher opponent (at least the majority of the team has experience playing Detroit from last year). The Sharks have been the hottest team in the league since acquiring Brian Campbell at the trade deadline, and it will take a simply gargantuan effort to derail them. This means that San Jose is the perfect team to prove the Flames' worth.
The Flames won their season series against San Jose 3-1. The first game, on October 22nd at the 'Dome, was a 4-1 win by the Sharks. The Flames' only goal came with less than 3 minutes left, Miikka Kiprusoff was pulled for most of the third period after the fourth goal, and the final shot count was 20-19. The next game was on January 3rd, in the Shark Tank. The Flames managed to win 3-2 on an overtime goal by Jarome Iginla despite being outshot 36-20. The January 30th game was probably the Flames' best effort against San Jose, a 5-4 win at home that was not as close as the score indicated (you can read my post about that game
if you're interested). The Flames' final game against the Sharks, in San Jose on February 12th, was a virtual repeat of the last game in the Tank, with Iggy once again winning the game in OT (blogpost here if you're interested.)
Every game was won by one goal, and most importantly every game was won before Campbell arrived in San Jose. But overall, I suppose it could be said that the Flames proved they could keep pace with the Sharks, and as for Campbell, as Mike Keenan says, the Flames have their own puck moving defenceman to counter the former Sabre in Dion Phaneuf (more on him later, he should be a very interesting player to watch).
On paper, this series is just as lopsided as last year's series against the Wings. The Flames have a tendency to be a one-line team, while the Sharks are deep across four lines (most powerfully shown in their one-two punch of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau), the Flames are average on defence outside of their two studs Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr (they have the second-most goals allowed of any of the playoff teams in the West, while the Sharks have the third least; and let's face it, Anders Erikkson, David Hale, Cory Sarich and Adrian Aucoin aren't anything to write home about), and the Flames' special teams is mediocre on a good night (especially on penalty kill), contrasting to the Sharks' top three penalty kill and power play.
However, the Flames' strengths can be summed up in three words: Kiprusoff, Iginla and Phaneuf. Kiprusoff isn't at the top of that list because of the alphabet. Just like last season's playoffs, Kiprusoff will be the single most important player to the Flames' success. Adding some interest is the fact he will be facing off against his old Sharks colleague and Vezina Trophy candidate Evgeni Nabokov. Although Kipper had some well documented early struggles in the net, Nabokov and Kiprusoff nevertheless finished 1st and 3rd overall, respectively, in wins. Although the Sharks undoubtedly have more offensive punch than the Flames, this could ironically be one of the lower scoring series of the 1st round....if the Flames bring their elite game. But if they don't...I'll get to that later.
Here's something those who have read my blog in the past might be surprised to hear me say: I believe the Flames can win. There, I said it, and maybe world peace can be achieved too. However, they have to have a brilliant effort to do so. I don't see them stealing any more games from the Sharks like they did in their two games in San Jose. The following things must happen in order to win, not necessarily in order of importance:
1. Miikka Kiprusoff cannot have any weak games. He must be at the absolute top of his game, like he was last year against Detroit when he single handedly made the series come within a goal (more specifically, a certain David Moss shot going inches lower instead of hitting the crossbar) of going the distance of seven games. But that series is why Kiprusoff cannot win the series on his own.
2. Jarome Iginla cannot be shut down. Down the stretch, several teams were able to figure out how to shut down Iginla, one of the factors that led the Flames to lose the Northwest Division pennant (and made Iggy wait until the final game of the season, one that the Canucks mailed in, to score his 50th goal).
3. The Flames have to get the lucky bounces. This is a given in every playoff series, but there are few hungrier teams than the Sharks right now.
4. An early start in the series is absolutely crucial. The first two games of the series are back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday. If the Flames don't come home with at least a split, I cannot see them rallying under any circumstances.
I'll admit it, I can see the Flames winning. I can't see it as much as I can see the Sharks winning right now, but if the Flames do manage to do it, they will have to play all seven games. If the Flames decide to show up and play like a playoff team, I could see this series being reminiscent of the 2004 first round matchup against Vancouver.
The Flames will lose in the first round for the third straight year if their horrific inconsistency carries over into the playoffs. It's as simple as that. As much as I'd love to see the Flames shock the Sharks (I forgot to mention, if the Flames won this would be the biggest upset of the West regardless of what else happens) my mind is telling me not to expect much different than last year's Detroit disaster.
If the Flames play like they did in the regular season, the Sharks will win in 5, or 6 if the Flames are lucky. If the Flames play to their potential, they can win in 7.
You know what? I'm going to refrain from making an official prediction. In the HB pool, I'll put in Flames in 7 just because I never want to bet against my own team (even though if I was blogging last year I would not hesitate saying Wings in 5, a prediction which was off by one game). This is the Stanley Cup playoffs, the best sports time of the year, and quite stranger things have happened. My duty as a fan, I think, requires me to put my pessimism on hold until, or if, the Flames are officially eliminated.
I think this is as good as I can get without resorting to pure despair and pessimism.
Flames in 7!
(Here's the rest of my predictions, since I can't resist:
(1)Detroit vs (8)Nashville - I want to go with Nashville on a pure gut feeling...but can't quite overrule my head. Wings in 6, hope I'm wrong on this one.
(3)Minnesota vs (6)Colorado - the season series speaks for itself I think. I have a good feeling about Minnesota this year. Wild in 6.
(4)Anaheim vs (5)Dallas - I think this might be the most entertaining series of the first round. Ducks in 7.
(1)Montreal vs (8)Boston - season series speaks for itself. Also, Montreal is my team if the Flames don't make it. Habs in 5.
(2)Pittsburgh vs (7)Ottawa - I'm gonna go with the popular opinion here, but be a bit kinder to Ottawa. Pens in 6.
(3)Washington vs (6)Philadelphia - could be the best series in the East quarterfinals. I think Washington is the most likely Cinderella team (in the East, at least....). Caps in 7.
(4)New Jersey vs (5)New York - Brodeur keeps the Devils in it. Rangers in 6.
And here's something to get you pumped and maybe optimistic for the series, fellow Flames fans:
Remember this goal? I don't like to dwell on '04 but hey, it was what happened last time these teams met...you never know...
Man, I can't wait until Wednesday, no matter what.