PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Game 1.
TIME: Sunday, 4 p.m. EDT.
"Who saw this one coming?" Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "These teams, who would have predicted it?"
Despite their low payrolls and lack of postseason experience, either the Sharks or Flames will represent the West in the Stanley Cup finals, marking the second straight year that conference powers like Detroit, Colorado and Dallas will watch from home while upstarts vie for a chance at the title.
Last season, Minnesota and Anaheim battled for the West title, with the Mighty Ducks making an improbable run to Game 7 of the finals behind the brilliant goaltending of Jean-Sebastien Giguere before losing to New Jersey.
Similarly, the Sharks have been led by goalie Evgeni Nabokov and a young, developing roster - seven of their top playoff scorers are San Jose draft picks - into this series. Coach Ron Wilson's Sharks knocked off the high-priced, veteran-laden Avalanche in the conference semifinals.
"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 are clearly the bigger surprise of the two teams. While San Jose won the Pacific Division title, Calgary entered the playoffs as a No. 6 seed, ending an eight-year playoff drought before knocking off Vancouver and stunning playoff-tested Detroit in six games.
Calgary coach and general manager Darryl Sutter, fired by the Sharks in December 2002 and hired by the Flames 27 days later, 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."
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."
Regardless of the outcome, both franchises will get some much-deserved attention.
"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."
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Flames - 6th seed; beat Vancouver Canucks 4-3, quarterfinals; beat Detroit Red Wings 4-2, semifinals. Sharks - 2nd seed; beat St. Louis Blues 4-1, quarterfinals; beat Colorado Avalanche 4-2, semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Flames - Iginla, 6 goals and 12 points; Craig Conroy, 7 assists; Ville Niemenen, 29 PIM. Sharks - Marleau, 7 goals; Niko Dimitrakos, 8 assists; Vincent Damphousse, 11 points; Scott Hannan, 18 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Flames - Power play: 11.5 percent (7 for 61). Penalty killing: 82.3 percent (51 for 62). Sharks - Power play: 14.3 percent (8 for 56). Penalty killing: 91.8 percent (45 for 49).
GOALTENDERS: Flames - Mikka Kiprusoff (8-5, 3 SO, 1.92 GAA); Roman Turek (no appearances). Sharks - Nabokov (8-3, 2, 1.33); Vesa Toskala (no appearances).