SUN Hockey Pool

Flames aim to keep pace with Sharks

Calgary Flames defenceman Andrew Ference.

Calgary Flames defenceman Andrew Ference.

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 5:43 PM ET

Twice bitten by the Sharks last month, the Calgary Flames aren't shy about admitting they'll have their hands full tonight.

Calgary lost both pre-season matchups against San Jose -- by a combined score of 11-4 -- and host the high-octane Sharks tonight (6 p.m., Sportsnet, FAN 960) at the Saddledome.

Picked by many prognosticators to win the Stanley Cup this season, the Sharks have arguably the best 1-2 punch of scoring lines in the NHL.

Last year's Hart and Art Ross winner Joe Thornton centres the reigning Maurice Richard Trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo and big winger Mark Bell.

If that trio isn't enough, the second line features middle man Patrick Marleau, who would claim the No. 1 role for almost any other squad, between wingers Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier.

In two regular-season games, they've already combined for 14 points.

"The balance they have on those two lines, everybody knows if you try to shut down one line there's another one just as good," said former Shark Jeff Friesen yesterday after the Flames' optional skate.

"It's gonna be a key for us, play a team game and make sure we're not just trying to shut down one line."

The Flames boast a solid defensive corps even without rugged Rhett Warrener in the lineup.

But when facing a team like the Sharks, a lot of responsibility falls on the forwards to keep opposition snipers in check.

"You get a top six, two lines that are dangerous, it intensifies the need for you to be deep on defence and deep in defensive forwards, which

I think we are," said Flames defenceman Andrew Ference.

"That's one of the things that this team, the last few years, has been very proud of. We can throw out a few different D pairs and a few different forward lines to shut down top lines. That's how we keep the puck out of our net.

"Last year, goals-against obviously Miikka was a huge part but another huge part is that we have so many responsible forwards and so many adequate d-men."

Saturday night's offensive stars Marcus Nilson and Stephane Yelle will again play prominent roles, this time relied upon more for their heralded shadowing abilities than the unexpected goals they chipped in against the Oilers.

Ference says it's always important for the Flames' front-liners to take care of business in their own end but even more so against top lines like the Sharks'.

"When you get guys like Thornton and players who like that puck possession and like to have that space to work, defensive forwards make all the difference in the world for us as defencemen," said Ference.

"They tighten up that player's space and make them make decisions faster. For defencemen, that's golden."

It will take a total team effort for the Flames to do what they were unable to achieve in San Jose -- keep pace with the Shark attack.

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BEWARE OF THE SHARK ATTACK

2005-06 point totals for San Jose's top lines (goals, assists, points, games played)

FIRST LINE

W Mark Bell -- 25-23-48 (82GP)*

C Joe Thornton -- 29-96-125 (81)

W J. Cheechoo -- 56-37-93 (82)

SECOND LINE

W Milan Michalek -- 17-18-35 (81)

C Patrick Marleau -- 34-52-86 (82)

W Steve Bernier -- 14-13-27 (39)


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