Flames, Flyers for final

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:30 PM ET


 Contrary to popular belief in Toronto, the hockey season is not over.

 There are still four very good teams battling for the right to win the Stanley Cup and, at this point, it's a wide-open race.

 SAN JOSE SHARKS CALGARY FLAMES

 The popular story line here has to do with Darryl Sutter facing his former team.

 But really, the story line should be the reaction of the former team to Darryl Sutter.

 During his tenure as Sharks coach, Sutter earned the animosity of several players. This does not mean he was a poor coach. Probably the opposite.

 But the fact remains that there are players on that San Jose team who would love to stick it to Sutter. Is it mere coincidence that Patrick Marleau is now blossoming as a star after years of what was at best a difficult relationship with Sutter?

 Another always dangerous forward, Alexander Korolyuk, was perennially in Sutter's doghouse and expected to follow Andrei Zyuzin to parts other than San Jose.

 There is no shortage of Sharks who were glad to see Sutter leave.

 But now he's slightly mellowed, at the helm of an exciting young team and getting the most out of his talent. His tenure in San Jose made him aware of what Miikka Kiprusoff could do, so he grabbed him, and now the understudy goes head to head with the man he couldn't unseat, Evgeni Nabokov.

 It's a fascinating matchup, one full of parallels, including the two best young defence corps in hockey.

 Unfortunately for the Flames, their group is a bit battered. As a result, San Jose gets an advantage. If you base your game on a net-crashing style, you can anticipate a tough time against the Sharks.

 But these two teams are so evenly matched that the series will probably go to the one that works harder. Calgary in six.

 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

 By now, the Tampa players have to be wondering about the NHL's reward system.

 Because they finished first in the East, they got the easiest draws -- the New York Islanders, then the Montreal Canadiens.

 But did it lull them into a false sense of security? Did they get the feeling that this playoff marathon is not all it's cracked up to be?

 And then there's the reward for sweeping the Habs -- a nice nine-day layoff to ease the aches and pains. But again, will this do more harm than good?

 The Anaheim Mighty Ducks had a similar layoff before last year's final and later admitted it had a significant adverse effect.

 The Flyers, on the other hand, got three days off to recuperate and should be ready to roll again by tomorrow.

 Their biggest concern will be the duct-taped defence, but Ken Hitchcock is an excellent coach and he'll move heaven and earth to get the speed matchup he wants against the top Tampa line of Martin St. Louis, Ruslan Fedotenko and Vincent Lecavalier.

 The Flyers' biggest asset here is their experience. These are uncharted waters for the Lightning and coach John Tortorella, but Hitchcock and many of his players have some familiarity with this rarefied level.

 The Lightning also will have trouble handling Keith Primeau who, as the Maple Leafs found, can win games at both ends of the ice. For the most part, the teams match up well, but Primeau is the one aspect the Lightning can't match. Flyers in six.

 ---

 PREDICTIONS

 - AL STRACHAN 9-3

 Flyers in 6 Flames in 6

 - LANCE HORNBY 7-5

 Flyers in 6 Flames in 7

 - TERRY KOSHAN 7-5

 Flyers in 6 Sharks in 7

 - MIKE ZEISBERGER 4-8

 Lightning in 6 Flames in 7


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