CALGARY – Mike Keenan doesn’t believe there is a secret to post-season success, despite being fifth all-time in playoff victories among NHL coaches.
But Keenan does feel the Calgary Flames have the right formula in place to be well positioned when his club opens their Western Conference quarter-final series against the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday.
“We had games late in the regular season that looked like we were a playoff-ready team,” Keenan said Monday, following a short, high-intensity practice on the eve of the team’s departure for California for Games 1 and 2. “The energy is high, goaltending is great and our special teams will need to get the job done. These are the aspects you need covered to get the job done for a playoff series, especially this type of series, and I believe we have them.”
And this best-of-seven expects to be an extremely physical battle between second-seeded San Jose, the hottest team in hockey over the last 22 games (18-2-2), and the seventh-seeded Flames, the only Canadian entry in the Western Conference playoff picture.
As the underdog, Calgary’s philosophy against an opponent anchored by leading scorer Joe Thornton (29 of his 96 points coming on goals) is to be aggressive throughout the series.
“One of the biggest things will be how we use our size to play their playmakers,” said Flames forward Owen Nolan, the one-time Sharks captain. “The best way to play them is physical and to play the body, especially early.”
Not only on Thornton, but Patrick Marleau, who was solid in the second half of the season, and Milan Michalek, an impressive plus-19 during a 55-point season.
“We need to take away some of their options and be aware of the other guys on the ice, and if Thornton gets the puck, be all over him quick,” said Calgary defenceman Cory Sarich. “If we can stop their cycles and start off with a physical presence, it will help us disrupt their game.
And not back down, emphasized Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
“We do expect to be physical and we have to play hard on their skilled guys,” said Iginla, a 50-goal scorer this season for the second time in his career. “We expect it to be similar to the other games we’ve played against them – close, and heated at times.”
The Flames believe they can make run despite backing into the playoffs after an inconsistent season.
The chief reason for their confidence?
“You look at the goaltending match-up, and if you put Kipper (Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff) up against anyone, we like him,” Iginla said. “He was amazing down the stretch, and the bigger the games are, the more he gets in the zone.”
Kiprusoff was instrumental in the Flames’ improbable run to the 2004 Stanley Cup final, and he will have to be terrific again if Calgary has any hope of a first-round upset.
“This is why you play the regular season – for the playoffs,” said Kiprusoff, a former Sharks draft pick who routinely performs will against his old club. “You have a chance to win, to go all the way and every game matters. What else can you say? What else can you want?”
The two teams met on four occasions during the regular season, with Calgary holding a 3-1 head-to-head advantage. But each of those came before the trade deadline and the Sharks’ acquisition of defenceman Brian Campbell, who had three goals and 16 assists in the 20 games since being dealt by Buffalo in late February.
“He’s a skater, so we need to keep the puck away from him because if he gets rolling, he has the wheels to get by everyone,” said Flames winger Alex Tanguay.
Campbell has been especially effective on the power play this season, collecting 33 of his 62 points with the extra man. Which makes discipline an important factor for a Calgary team that finished 20th on the penalty kill this year.
“The power play is (Campbell’s specialty) and while we want to be physical, we can’t do anything stupid after the whistle, especially in the neutral zone,” said Flames forward Craig Conroy, listed as day-to-day (torso), though he did practise Monday. “Two or three penalties a night in the playoffs, but eight or nine is dangerous.
Which is why Keenan believes the referees will have a significant bearing on how the series will play out.
“I am interested to see how the games will be officiated with two physical teams who will compete and play hard,” Keenan said.
“I hope the officials will let them play because it will be more exciting for the fans if they let them play hard.”
NOTES: The Flames are remarkably healthy heading into the playoffs. Centre Stephane Yelle, who has been day-to-day with an unspecified injury, practised Monday. … This is the first playoff meeting between the two clubs since 2004, which is the last year Calgary won a post-season series.