When the Calgary Flames ventured into the waters of the NHL's Western Conference final, it was on the strength of Round 1 and 2 wins over a couple of high-octane teams, the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings.
But for their Round 3 opposition, the San Jose Sharks, the Flames faced a different kettle of fish.
The Sharks had grit, speed, defence, spectacular goaltending and youthful exuberance -- many of the strengths that fuelled the Flames throughout the 2004 playoffs.
"San Jose's a team like ours," said Flames GM-head coach Darryl Sutter, who was fired as bench boss of the Sharks just 17 months earlier.
"They're a fast team. Their work ethic is impeccable. And they're very similar to us. The only difference is their young players are really experienced. They're playoff tested."
Indeed, with veterans such as Mike Ricci, Scott Thornton and Vincent Damphousse, the Sharks were brimming with post-season experience.
Even the young stars, such as Scott Hannan, Patrick Marleau and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, offered plenty of playoff savvy. Their confidence was further heightened by finishing the regular season first in the Pacific Division and second in the Western Conference with 104 points.
They were fresh off eliminating the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche.
Yet none of that mattered in Games 1 and 2 within the friendly confines of the HP Pavilion, where the Flames first stole a 4-3 overtime win, thanks to a winning goal from defenceman Steve Montador, then dominated Game 2, winning 4-1.
Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff (who, like Sutter, was looking to pay back a team that deemed him expendable) and superstar Jarome Iginla continued to lead the Flames' attack, giving the underdogs their first two-game series lead of the playoffs. The Game 2 victory also extended the Flames' win streak to four games and, more important, gave them a comfortable series lead heading back to the Saddledome.
But the usually opportunistic Flames botched the chance for a stranglehold of the series, dropping Games 3 and 4 by respective 3-0 and 4-2 scores. It sent them back to California without momentum for a Game 5 just one day following Game 4.
Fortunately, the Flames found the same resilience they showed in the previous series, bouncing back and winning their third Game 5 of the post-season.
Again, Iginla was the hero in the 3-0 shutout with a first-period goal on a breakaway with his team shorthanded.
"Once we got that big start from Iggy, it just went from there," said Iginla's centre, Craig Conroy. "That's what Iggy does -- that's why he wears the 'C' and is the best player in the NHL. That goal was huge as it took the pressure off us."
Meanwhile, it put the pressure squarely on the Sharks, who couldn't deal with it and sunk in Game 6 back at the 'Dome -- mainly because of Conroy.
His assists on goals by Iginla and Martin Gelinas provided the spark the Flames needed to clinch the series on home ice.
Gelinas' goal, his third series-clincher of the post-season, proved to be the difference in a 3-1 win to send the Flames to the Stanley Cup final.
The Cinderfella Flames were going to the ball.
"What really makes this special is nobody would have thought this at the beginning of the season," said 39-year-old veteran Dave Lowry. "Nobody."
Added Gelinas: "At the start of the season, we knew we had a gritty team and a team that worked hard. Our goal was to make the playoffs and, as the season went along, we realized that once we got to the playoffs that we could go a long ways."
That meant stopping only briefly to celebrate their Western Conference title and the Clarence Campbell Bowl. The Stanley Cup was the true prize now.
"Not only are we representing Calgary but Canada," Gelinas said. "It's an opportunity that doesn't come very often. We've just got to make the best of it."
Flames jump the Shark
TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun
, Last Updated: 11:50 AM ET