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2nd season begins with a test
Demons ready to be excercised?
4/6/08 - By Mike Lee

And that folks is a wrap on the regular season. Now begins the fun part. The NHL's second season is here. It's a 2 month stretch of hockey that will define the legacy of one of the 16 teams that remain in contention for Lord Stanley's Cup. The Sharks are as poised to grab a puck as they've ever been, but we won't know if team is for real for another four series of hockey. Assuming they last four series that is.

Not that winning a cup is easy anyway, but we finally learned that the Sharks will have a chance to exercise some playoff demons right from the get to. The Calgary Flames come to town on Wednesday night in a rematch of the 2004 Western Conference Finals.

The Sharks had home ice advantage in that series as well, and essentially coughed up the series by losing the first two games of the series on home ice. Steve Montador's overtime goal helped Calgary steal the first game and a 4-1 pasting by the Flames put Calgary up 2-0 in that series. The Sharks would win the next two games in Calgary, but when San Jose dropped a 3rd consecutive home game to the Flames by getting shutout, the series was over.

Former Sharks goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff got, well, red hot in that series and he carried the Flames all the way to a game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals. Kiprusoff has played like a mere mortal this season, so the Sharks can't allow him to get into any grooves.

The focus of the series will of course be on Jerome Iginla, the Flames 50-goal scorer. Iginla killed the Sharks this season, helping the Flames to win 3-of-4 regular season contests between the two teams. Look for plenty of defensive focus on Iginla. San Jose's 2.24 goals against average ranked them 3rd in the regular season, but Calgary has average 2.73 goals per game (12th).

The Sharks will need to take advantage of the special teams advantage they have. For all the troubles the power play seemed to have this season, a late season surge placed them 10th in the league in power play efficiency. A 9-for-9 day on the penalty kill against Dallas on Sunday pushed the Sharks past the Stars for top honors in penalty kill efficiency (85.8%).

Numbers aside, the playoffs are all about the intangibles. There's nobody more intangible on the ice than Dion Phaneuf, the Flames top defenseman. Phaneuf will try to intimidate the Sharks forwards with his hard nosed hitting and in your face style of play. The Sharks need to take Phaneuf out of the equation by capitalizing on special teams.

This series will come down to five factors:

1) Evgeni Nabokov - After waiting out both Kiprusoff and Toskala, Nabokov has finally locked down the goaltending position, and his performance this season was Vezina worthy. He needs to get off to a quick start and lock into the zone that carried the Sharks to 20 straight games with a point.

2) Special Teams - The Sharks must take advantage of a mediocre Calgary penalty kill by cashing in on every chance they get. The Flames have the offensive advantage with Iginla alone. Let him dictate a game and it's curtains for the Sharks.

3) The Captain - It's time for Patrick Marleau to act the part. And by that, I mean more than score a few goals and carry the team offensively. He has Joe Thornton to help with the offensive production, but what Marleau needs to get past is the stigma that he's soft. Nothing would shock the Flames more, than to see Marleau mixing it up with a guy like Phaneuf. Go on the offensive and shift the focus away from being the team that takes the punishment.

4) Lombardi & Tanguay - With so much focus on Iginla and his linemates, the Sharks can't forget about the Matthew Lombardi and Alex Tanguay. Nolan will probably get lots of ice time on that line, which means Calgary has a combo line that has skill and can get nasty. Nolan is another guy the Sharks should pester. We all know about the fuse. Get the old man off his game by getting into his head.

5) The Revenge Factor - There are almost as man former Sharks in the Flames organization as there are in San Jose's. Nobody wants to show up San Jose more than Darryl Sutter, although Owen Nolan is right behind him. Mark Smith, Wayne Primeau and Kiprusoff provide more than enough incentive. Heck, even Rich Preston wants a piece of the action after getting run out of San Jose.

If the Sharks are going to make a run, they have to cut their teeth somewhere. Calgary is the one team they probably didn't want to see in the first round, but it's also a chance for them to build some real confidence. Get past this test and the next rounds get easier, simply because they got past such a huge obstacle.

I hate making series predictions, so I'm not going to give you one. Let's just hope the Sharks move on, and they keep their pieces injury free.


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