Final's got teeth

TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 1:55 PM ET


 Darryl Sutter has said throughout the playoffs the San Jose Sharks are a terrific team.

 Just how terrific they are, Sutter and his Calgary Flames are about to find out.

 The two clubs will square off in the NHL's Western Conference final series.

 The best-of-seven showdown is set to begin Sunday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.

 And, in many ways, the two Western finalists mirror each other in team strengths. Perhaps that's why they've both advanced past the first two rounds of the post-season.

 "San Jose's a team like ours," said Flames GM/head coach Darryl Sutter.

 "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, the youthful likes of Patrick Marleau, Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren each boast at least 27 post-season games on their resumes.

 Paced by Marleau's team-leading goal scoring, their contributions in these playoffs have proved valuable.

 Meanwhile, playoff rookies Jonathan Cheechoo and Nicholas Dimitrakos are fitting in nicely with the offence, while fellow freshman Tom Preissing is impressing defensively.

 Only Nils Ekman, who was among the best players for the Sharks in the stretch-run, has yet to find his playoff groove.

 When it comes to playoff rookies, the Flames can match the Sharks with Matthew Lombardi, Chris Clark, Marcus Nilson, Oleg Saprykin and Chuck Kobasew manning an aggressive two-way forward corps.

 Of course, Jarome Iginla is the pacesetter, joining Marleau among the league's goal and point leaders in these playoffs.

 On the Flames blueline, Robyn Regehr is leading an amazing young defence that includes Jordan Leopold, Steve Montador and Mike Commodore.

 Where the Flames boast the experience of Stanley Cup champions Stephane Yelle, Chris Simon, Martin Gelinas, Ville Nieminen and Krzysztof Oliwa and post-season savvy in Dave Lowry, Andrew Ference and Rhett Warrener, the Sharks have a few playoff heroes of their own.

 Mike Ricci, Scott Thornton, Alyn McCauley, Curtis Brown, Mike Rathje and Vincent Damphousse have all been through the ropes, although the status of Thornton is uncertain for the start of the series.

 No matter, the Sharks are as team-oriented as any in the NHL.

 Only the Flames (176) and Dallas Stars (175) allowed fewer goals than the Sharks (183) among Western Conference teams during the regular season.

 "Of course, San Jose is like us," said Flames left-winger Ville Nieminen. "They take time and space away, so it's really tough to play against them."

 If and when the Flames get past the Sharks defence, they'll have to contend with the West's best playoff goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov.

 With an amazing 1.37 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage prior to last night's Game 6 win over the Colorado Avalanche, Nabokov is a major reason the Flames were able to acquire Miikka Kiprusoff in a November trade with the Sharks.

 With the former teammates manning each end of the ice and space at a premium thanks to stifling defences, expect a low-scoring series between the Sharks and Flames.

 That could make special teams the key in deciding which team advances to the Stanley Cup final to represent the Western Conference.

 Never mind that the Sharks finished the regular season with 104 points and entered the playoffs as the second seed before dispatching, with relative ease, two highly skilled teams in the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche.

 "Our focus is on us," Sutter said. "If our focus had been on Detroit the last series, our young guys would have been in awe."


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