The San Jose Sharks plan to rely in large part on their physical style to carry them through the NHL postseason. Their opening-round opponent should provide them with a pretty clear idea of how effective that approach will be.
The second-seeded Sharks host the No. 7 Calgary Flames on Wednesday night in the opener of what should be one of the most hard-hitting matchups of the first round of the playoffs.
Still seeking the franchise's first Stanley Cup, the Sharks may have their best chance to reach that elusive goal this year. They went 49-23-10 this season to set a team record with 108 points, and an 18-0-2 stretch from Feb. 21-April 1 served notice of how dominant they can be.
"We've created a great atmosphere in here, with everybody pushing each other," Sharks star Joe Thornton said. "I really feel it's only going to get bigger and better in the playoffs."
Bigger was one of the keys to the Sharks' outstanding season. A roster built on size as well as skill allows San Jose to wear down opponents, and the Sharks are counting on that edge to pay dividends during long playoff series.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Thornton was the engine that drove the Sharks this season, recording 29 goals and an NHL-high 67 assists to finish fifth in the league with 96 points. He's joined by 6-2, 220-pound Patrick Marleau (19 goals, 29 assists), 6-2, 225-pound Milan Michalek (24 goals, 31 assists) and 6-1, 205-pound Jonathan Cheechoo (23 goals) on a forward corps that challenges any opponent's defense to keep it away from the front of the net and from dominating individual battles in the offensive zone.
"We have a lot more skill now and we're bigger than before," Marleau told the Sharks' official Web site.
The Sharks, however, won't be doing anything that the Flames haven't seen - or done - before. These teams are meeting in the postseason for the third time, most recently in 2004, when Calgary rode the same approach past San Jose in the Western Conference finals to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
"It's a great matchup," 6-4, 235-pound Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "Both teams are physical and like to play it rough."
Like San Jose, Calgary's top offensive player mixes skill, size and toughness. Jarome Iginla turned in another great season, with 50 goals and 48 assists to place third in the league with 98 points - also a career high. The 11-year veteran has 21 goals and 15 assists in 41 playoff games.
With Daymond Langkow (30 goals, 35 assists), Kristian Huselius (25 goals, 41 assists), Alex Tanguay (18 goals, 40 assists) and longtime Sharks captain Owen Nolan, Calgary (42-30-10) also gets plenty of offense up front, and enhances its effectiveness with a grinding and often chippy style designed to get opponents off their game.
"Every year we've had reasons for the last few to be optimistic, but so far this one feels the best. I really feel good about this group," Iginla, the Flames captain, told his team's official Web site.
For the Flames to pull the upset, they'll have to solve San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov - something few teams were able to do this season. Nabokov led the NHL with 46 wins, two shy of the league record, and posted a 2.14 goals-against average and six shutouts in 77 games.
Nabokov will repeat his 2004 playoff matchup with the Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff, the former Shark who had a very good season of his own with 39 wins, two shutouts and a 2.69 GAA in 76 games. Kiprusoff got the best of Nabokov during that postseason series, going 4-2 with 1.84 GAA and one shutout, while Nabokov posted a 2.38 GAA while playing all six games.
Bounced in the second round the last two postseasons, San Jose hopes defenseman Brian Campbell will help it get over that hump this year. Acquired from Buffalo at the February trade deadline, Campbell's speed and offensive ability from the blue line helped make San Jose's power play the NHL's best after his arrival.
A childhood friend of Thornton's, Campbell had eight goals and 54 assists this season.
"It helps a little bit because Brian Campbell and (Thornton) are buddies from a long time, and Brian eggs him on into doing some things, teases him," coach Ron Wilson said. "That's good for him. (Campbell) has challenged him a little bit. ... I've told Joe a thousand times, being successful in the playoffs is the ability to make adjustments. I think he understands that. If he doesn't get any assists and just scores goals, and we win, that's what's important."
Sharks defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who recorded 21 assists and was plus-9 in 77 games this season, is unlikely to play in Game 1 after missing practice Tuesday with an undisclosed injury.
The Flames, who are also making their fourth straight playoff appearance but were eliminated in the first round each of the last two years, fell to the Sharks in the first round in 1995, the teams' first postseason encounter.
Calgary, though, took the season series in 2007-08, winning three of four matchups.
Game 2 is scheduled for Thursday night at HP Pavilion.