West finalists had been expected to falter
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It's the first rule of Hollywood, and it's also a reminder for hockey fans who can scarcely believe the cinematic matchup in the Western Conference finals.
Nobody knows anything.
The Calgary Flames and the San Jose Sharks flout every supposed necessity for NHL playoff success. They have low payrolls, low-profile rosters and not much postseason experience -- and both teams were widely expected to struggle, falter and stay near the bottom of the conference, where they finished last season.
But after surprising regular seasons and semifinal victories over Detroit and Colorado, Calgary and San Jose will open the finals Sunday at the Shark Tank. One underdog story will continue, one dream season will conclude -- but neither team is ready for the closing credits just yet.
"Who saw this one coming?" Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "These teams, who would have predicted it?"
In a league traditionally thought to be dominated by money and experience, it's the most surprising playoff development since, well, last season, when Anaheim and Minnesota came from nowhere for a similar conference final.
But the Sharks' success is years in the making. Star goalie Evgeni Nabokov and five of their top seven playoff scorers were San Jose draft picks, and the young roster came together with remarkable swiftness during coach Ron Wilson's first full season.
"The idea that we can't spend enough money to get here, that's a crock," Wilson said. "It's how you manage your players, how you draft, how you develop, how you trade, how you coach. We've earned our opportunities by working hard. That's how you get here, and that's how these teams did it."
The Flames also put things together in one season thanks to coach-GM Darryl Sutter, fired by the Sharks in December 2002 and hired by Calgary 27 days later. Sutter made his team younger and cheaper -- and instead of falling back, the Flames surged to their first conference final in 15 years.
"We felt in order for us to grow and get better, our team had to get younger," Sutter said. "Making the playoffs is obviously every team's goal, but we had to look at doing what we could do to make the playoffs, to become a playoff team, and not hurt us long-term."
The long-suffering fans in both cities are ready. The Flames blanketed their town in the team colors, including a "Sea of Red" in the Saddledome during their upset of the Red Wings -- so the Sharks have countered with an "Ocean of Teal," asking their fans to wear their signature color.
"It's going to be a great series for decibels," Wilson said.
Both coaches disagree with observers who believe their young, physical teams are mirror images. They have similar defensive corps, with four superb defensemen in each lineup -- but their offensive approaches have little in common. The Flames favor grinding play, while San Jose uses its speed and discipline to overwhelm opponents.
Sutter is expected to match defenseman Robyn Regehr with Sharks captain Patrick Marleau, the NHL postseason leader with seven goals. Wilson never uses specific matchups, believing any of his lines or defensive pairings can contain Flames captain Jarome Iginla, who's tied for the playoff scoring lead with 12 points.
"It's going to be a challenge for the whole team," Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan said. "Our guys have done a good job shutting down big players all the way through. We're an in-your-face team, and that comes from everybody." The Sharks got balanced scoring from all four lines during the regular season, but linemates Vincent Damphousse, Niko Dimitrakos, and Marleau have combined for 13 of San Jose's 24 goals in the postseason. Wilson hopes other players pick up their games -- particularly Nils Ekman, who has struggled in his first postseason.
The Flames are more balanced, but their attack clearly relies on Iginla and his insatiable pursuit of the puck. The series will be the biggest showcase yet for one of the NHL's unsung stars, who has been toiling in Calgary well after most East Coast hockey fans' bedtimes.
"It's a good chance to show people what we're all about," Iginla said. "It's a great opportunity for both clubs to get in the spotlight."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press