The first-round match up between the Calgary Flames and the San Jose Sharks could boil down to which team has the best power forward, elite defenceman and top-notch goaltender.
While Calgary’s offence centres around the exploits of high-scoring right winger Jarome Iginla, the Sharks rely on the ever-present offensive prowess of hulking centre Joe Thornton.
“Jarome’s our top player and everyone knows it and Joe’s their top player and everyone knows it,” said Calgary bench boss Mike Keenan, who knows the tendencies of both players having coached both of them during his storied career.
On defence, the Flames have one of the most feared hitters in the game in Dion Phaneuf, while the Sharks acquired one of the best offensive blue-liners at the trade deadline in Brian Campbell.
“He’s a skater, so we need to keep the puck away from him because if he gets rolling, he has the wheels to get by everyone,” said Calgary forward Alex Tanguay.
In goal, ex-Shark Miikka Kiprusoff will dictate whether the Flames can get past the second-ranked San Jose squad, which will rely on the ever-steady play of Evgeni Nabokov between the pipes.
“Kipper was amazing against them all year,” said Iginla of his netminder, who backstopped the Flames to a 3-1 record against the Sharks in the regular season. “You could put Kipper against anyone. We like him. The bigger the games are, you can just see he gets in his zone. He loves it.”
Kiprusoff said he’ll have a tough task to stymie the San Jose offence, which revolves around Thornton scoring and setting up the many talented Shark forwards.
“They have lots of scoring power,” Kiprusoff said. “They have young guys who can put the puck in the net. It’s one of the top teams in the league for many years now. It’s always a challenge to play against them.”
Iginla expects the opening round series between the two squads to be a hard-hitting affair that could go the distance.
“We do expect it to be physical,” said the all-time leader in goals scored for the Flames. “They have some big, physical guys and we do too. We know we’re going to be as hard on their skilled guys as we can. They have a bunch of them.”
Keenan has been through the playoff grind several times before, all the way to the point where he hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head. He’s now excited to start that quest once again for the first time at the helm of the Flames.
“We’re all looking forward to it,” Keenan said. “It takes a real playoff ready team to be able to deal with the expectations and the stresses and the hardships that are required to go deep in the playoffs or to win in the playoffs.”
The Flames take on the Sharks tonight at 8 p.m.