CALGARY - Since their improbable 2004 Stanley Cup run, the Calgary Flames have invested heavily in their defence corps.
And it's that group that will have to be catalysts if the seventh-seeded Flames have any shot of upsetting the No. 2-ranked San Jose Sharks in their Western Conference playoff series. The first game in the best-of-seven affair is slated for Wednesday night in California (10 p.m. ET).
Four Flames defencemen have signed significant deals since the lockout and next year will account for US$18.9 million of the team's payroll. The series with San Jose will be a pivotal first test to see if the investment has paid off.
It was an organizational philosophy to lock up a mix of youth and experience on the back end. Veteran Adrian Aucoin was acquired in the off-season and the Flames are on the hook for the last two years of his deal, which accounts for US$8 million; Cory Sarich came from Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent at $18 million over five years. Both Robyn Regehr (five years, $20 million) and Dion Phaneuf (six years, $39 million) will have their extensions kick in next season.
"This team is being built with those foundation players," said Flames head coach Mike Keenan. "Ultimately in the league today, and for the most part in history, defensive play and goaltending determines success in the playoffs.
"We will find out as the series unfolds if we we're up to the task."
In recent years, the Flames have not been.
After winning its division in 2006, Calgary was stunned in the first round of the playoffs by Anaheim. Last April, Detroit easily dispatched the Flames in six games. In each series, the Flames' defence was missing in action.
Phaneuf has managed only two points in 13 playoff games and is minus-12 overall. Regehr was available for only the second game of the Red Wings series because of a knee injury kept him out of the bulk of the 2007 playoffs.
"I'm not happy about it and neither is our team to lose in the first round," Phaneuf said Tuesday prior to the team's departure for San Jose. "The bottom line is we have to be good.
"If you dwell on the past in this game, you wouldn't be able to focus on the present.
"So you learn from it . . . and what we learned is you have to be good every night, every shift. I don't care how much money you make. It doesn't matter.
You have to play hard throughout the whole season and playoffs. That's what it comes down to."
The Flames are well aware of San Jose's offensive prowess, especially that of forward Joe Thornton. But Calgary hopes to wear the Sharks down with a steady physical presence and eliminate one of the league's best set-up men from creating.
"Their defencemen are so active offensively so we have to be aware of all five of their guys on the ice," said Sarich. "They just do such a good job of cycling the puck so it will come down to five guys on our team having to play defence."
Calgary's defence does have the capability to create offensively, especially with Phaneuf, who became a scoring threat in the second half of the season. That helped him finish with a career-high 60 points.
"We want to have puck control, that's the bottom line," said Phaneuf. "You want to be a threat every time you are in their zone."
Keenan believes playing in the competitive Western Conference will help the Flames and that the finest detail could alter the series.
"I see this being as tight as it was all year," he said. "It's incredibly tight.
"One small aspect (may) make all the difference".
NOTES: The Flames head into San Jose remarkably healthy, down only Rhett Warrener (ankle) and Mark Smith (concussion). It is believed both Craig Conroy and Stephane Yelle, who practised Monday and Tuesday, will be available . . . Calgary won the regular-season series with San Jose 3-1 . . . Aside from the success of the 2004 playoffs, the Flames have not won a post-season series since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 . . . The first two games in this series will be on consecutive nights (Wednesday and Thursday) in San Jose, before returning to Calgary on Sunday and Tuesday.