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Stunning final again in West

The Flames and Sharks were doormats last season. Now one will play for the Stanley Cup.

By Wire services
Published May 9, 2004

SAN JOSE, Calif. - It's the first rule of Hollywood, and it's also a reminder for hockey fans who can scarcely believe the cinematic matchup in the Western Conference final.

Nobody knows anything.

The Flames and Sharks are flourishing despite lacking every supposed necessity for NHL playoff success. They have low payrolls, low-profile rosters and not much postseason experience - and both were widely expected to struggle, falter and stay near the bottom of the conference, where they finished last season.

But after surprising regular seasons and semifinal victories over Detroit and Colorado, Calgary and San Jose open the West final today at San Jose's HP Pavilion, also known as the Shark Tank. One underdog story will continue, one dream season will conclude - but neither team is ready for the closing credits just yet.

"Who saw this one coming?" Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "These teams, who would have predicted it?"

In a league traditionally thought to be dominated by money and experience, it's the most surprising playoff development since, well, last season, when Anaheim and Minnesota came from nowhere for a similar West final.

But the Sharks' success is years in the making. Star goalie Evgeni Nabokov and five of their top seven playoff scorers were San Jose draft picks, and the young roster came together with remarkable swiftness during coach Ron Wilson's first full season.

"The idea that we can't spend enough money to get here, that's a crock," Wilson said. "It's how you manage your players, how you draft, how you develop, how you trade, how you coach. We've earned our opportunities by working hard. That's how you get here, and that's how these teams did it."

The Flames also put things together in one season thanks to coach-GM Darryl Sutter, fired by the Sharks in December 2002 and hired by Calgary 27 days later. Sutter made his team younger and cheaper - and instead of falling back, the Flames surged to their first conference final in 15 years.

"We felt in order for us to grow and get better, our team had to get younger," Sutter said. "Making the playoffs is obviously every team's goal, but we had to look at doing what we could do to make the playoffs, to become a playoff team, and not hurt us long-term."

Both coaches disagree with observers who believe their young, physical teams are mirror images. They have similar backlines, with four superb defensemen in each lineup - but their offensive approaches have little in common. The Flames favor grinding play, while San Jose uses its speed and discipline to overwhelm foes.

The Flames are more balanced, but their attack clearly relies on leading scorer Jarome Iginla and his insatiable pursuit of the puck. The series will be the biggest showcase yet for one of the league's unsung stars, who has been toiling in Calgary well after most East Coast fans' bedtimes.

"It's a good chance to show people what we're all about," Iginla said. "It's a great opportunity for both clubs to get in the spotlight."

DANTON CLAIMS ABUSE: Mike Danton of the Blues claims he was emotionally and physically abused during his childhood.

Danton, who was arrested on murder-for-hire charges, called the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from jail Friday and read a statement that focused on his relationship with his estranged parents, outlining allegations of "constant physical and emotional abuse" and saying he was raised in squalid conditions. His parents and family friends have disputed the accusations but his agent, Dave Frost, and friends have made similar statements.

Federal prosecutors have said Danton plotted for at least six months to kill Frost and tried at least three times to hire a hit man. Frost has consistently denied that Danton wanted him killed.

[Last modified May 9, 2004, 01:41:11]


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