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GAME: Toronto Maple Leafs at Philadelphia Flyers.
PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; Game 1.
TIME: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. EDT.
Having already eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champions, the next test for the Philadelphia Flyers comes from a team hungry for revenge and led by the league's hottest goaltender.
For the second consecutive season, the Flyers will have to get past Ed Belfour and the Toronto Maple Leafs when the teams open their Eastern Conference semifinal series at the Wachovia Center.
Off since completing a relatively easy five-game series win over the defending champion New Jersey Devils on Saturday, Philadelphia was unsure of its semifinal opponent until Toronto beat Ottawa 4-1 in Game 7 on Tuesday.
Toronto's victory sets up what promises to be another grueling and physical series between two veteran teams.
The Flyers and Maple Leafs met in the quarterfinals last season, with Philadelphia prevailing in seven games. That series featured two games that went to double overtime and one that needed triple overtime.
"It was a tough loss last year," Belfour said. "We have to go there with the attitude that we have to work even harder."
Surviving the series against Toronto left the Flyers without much energy when they faced Ottawa in the semifinals - a series they lost in six games.
"Toronto's physical play is big hits by their defensemen," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Last year's series was so long, it was drawn out on everybody. There was nothing left of them and nothing left of us. We anticipate that will happen again."
With untested Robert Esche matching up against New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, many believed the Flyers were headed for another early playoff exit this season. Esche, however, silenced his critics by stopping 155 of 164 shots and outplaying Brodeur, widely regarded as the league's best goaltender.
Esche will need to be very sharp again because Belfour is coming off a remarkable performance against the Senators.
Belfour recorded three shutouts in the seven-game series and stopped 227 of 238 shots for a .954 save percentage. After scoring just 14 goals and getting outshot 238-154 in the seven games, there is little doubt that Toronto would be making offseason plans already if not for Belfour.
"He's an amazing man. It's nice to see him play so well," Leafs forward Darcy Tucker said of Belfour. "He's a guy that comes to work every day and gives it his all. He's a real leader in our dressing room. We're fortunate to have him."
Even Belfour, however, was unable to help the Leafs against the Flyers during the regular season. Philadelphia won three of four meetings by a combined 17-5 score, beating Belfour 16 times on 86 shots.
Making Toronto's victory over Ottawa more impressive is that it did it without captain Mats Sundin for the final three games and without power forward Owen Nolan for the entire series.
Sundin, sidelined by a leg injury sustained in Game 4, hopes to play at some point in this series, but is doubtful for Game 1. Nolan, out nearly a month with a knee injury, also hopes to play.
"I don't think they're any more beat up than we are," Hitchcock said. "They're missing a couple of forwards like we're potentially missing a couple of defensemen."
Philadelphia has injury concerns of its own.
Defenseman Kim Johnsson didn't practice Tuesday because of a broken bone in his right hand and is questionable for Thursday. Already without defenseman Eric Desjardins, the Flyers moved forward Sami Kapanen to defense during Tuesday's practice.
"He looked excellent - his quickness, his competitiveness," Hitchcock said. "He looked comfortable. If we have to use him for a game or two, it's not a problem at all."
In an effort to end long Stanley Cup droughts, both teams were busy adding players during the season.
Philadelphia acquired center Alex Zhamnov, defensemen Vladimir Malakhov, Danny Markov and Mattias Timander and goalie Sean Burke. Toronto picked up future Hall of Famers Brian Leetch and Ron Francis and depth forward Chad Kilger at the trade deadline.
Each team is loaded with veterans capable of having a big series.
A trio of former Chicago Blackhawks was Philadelphia's best line against New Jersey. Zhamnov, Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte combined for six goals and 12 assists in the five-game series.
Without Sundin, center Joe Nieuwendyk, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, led Toronto with five goals against Ottawa, including two in Game 7. Left wing Gary Roberts had three goals in the quarterfinals, and his ferocious style should make life difficult for a Philadelphia defense that isn't overly physical.
Game 2 is Sunday at Philadelphia.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Maple Leafs - 4th seed; beat Ottawa Senators 4-3, quarterfinals. Flyers - 3rd seed; beat New Jersey Devils 4-1, quarterfinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Maple Leafs - Nieuwendyk, 5 goals and 5 points; Leetch, 4 assists; Tie Domi, 15 PIM. Flyers - Zhamnov, 3 goals and 8 points; Zhamnov, Roenick and Johnsson, 5 assists, Kapanen, 6 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Maple Leafs - Power play: 12.5 percent (4 for 32). Penalty killing: 91.4 percent (32 for 35). Flyers - Power play: 33.3 percent (4 for 12). Penalty killing: 83.3 percent (15 for 18).
GOALTENDERS: Maple Leafs - Belfour (4-3, 3 SO, 1.49 GAA); Trevor Kidd (no appearances). Flyers - Esche (4-1, 1, 1.81); Burke (no appearances).
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Flyers, 3-1. The Flyers won the first three meetings by a combined 15-2 score before the Leafs won 3-2 at Philadelphia on March 18. Michal Handzus had three goals and three assists, while John LeClair had two goals and three assists against Toronto. Leetch had four goals and six points in five games against the Flyers, but four of those games came while he was with the New York Rangers.
|Apr 22 '04||TOR 1 at PHI 3||M. Ragnarsson|
|Apr 25 '04||TOR 1 at PHI 2||A. Zhamnov|
|Apr 28 '04||PHI 1 at TOR 4||A. Ponikarovsky|
|Apr 30 '04||PHI 1 at TOR 3||M. Sundin|
|May 02 '04||TOR 2 at PHI 7||K. Primeau|
|May 04 '04||PHI 3 at TOR 2 - OT||J. Roenick|