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Eastern Conference Finals Preview

With contrasting styles, Lightning-Flyers slugfest comes down to defense

Posted: Thursday May 6, 2004 2:49PM; Updated: Friday May 7, 2004 12:43PM
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No. 1 Tampa Bay vs. No. 3 Philadelphia
Eastern Conference finals

It is fitting that these two teams square off in the Eastern Conference finals.

Conference Finals Previews
Darren Eliot
Lightning-Flyers | Sharks-Flames

Kostya Kennedy
Lightning-Flyers | Sharks-Flames

The Lightning repeated as champions of the Southeast Division -- something no team has been able to do, even though it is the surest way to garner a top three seed in the playoffs. But the Bolts didn't just sprint past the competition in the Southeast; they outran everyone in the conference, largely on the strength of a 28-7-2-5 second half.

Meanwhile, the Flyers eked past bitter rival New Jersey to win the Atlantic, claiming the crown by a single point -- the same margin they lost the division to the Devils the season before. Philadelphia did it largely by overcoming adversity in the form of major injuries throughout the season. The Flyers stumbled a bit entering the playoffs, but held off the Devils and have played consistently well in the postseason.

All of that is a quick backdrop for this matchup. If you believed that the Lightning are the real deal and that the Flyers would be in prime position to advance against either Ontario team after Toronto and Ottawa tore their annual strip off one another, these two teams ending up here is logical. It sets up as the classic confrontation of size versus speed.

On one hand, the Lightning are all about pace -- they dictate the style and tempo most nights with relentless puck pursuit and similarly diligent puck support in all three zones. On the other, what defines the Flyers is their size up front and willingness to bang and crash to generate offense. They are the best team in the NHL at getting to the front of the net without the puck.

That's not to say that the Lightning don't hit, or that the Flyers don't have speed. But as defining traits go, you get the picture: Tampa is fast, Philly is big. In the regular-season series, the fleet of foot won out, with the Bolts winning all four games and outscoring the Flyers 18-8. That matters little because these teams haven't met in nearly three months. Since then, the Flyers solidified their goaltending with Robert Esche's emergence as a bona fide starter.

During the regular season, four different netminders took one loss apiece versus the Lightning, hardly a scenario lending itself to clear conclusions. Esche did take one of those losses, getting the hook in January and then having to come out mid- game in February due to an injury. In all, Esche only played 50 minutes against the Lightning this season, which is no indicator at all.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Nikolai Khabibulin won all four games against the Flyers -- a sign of personal dominance, right? Well, maybe. But before you run off thinking you've found the key link to the Lightning prevailing, remember that Khabibulin was 1-10 lifetime against Philly prior to this season.

In the here and now of the playoffs, where performance measurables matter most,  Esche has played mostly solid and at times brilliant. Khabibulin has been magnificent throughout. But this series will prove the toughest for both. Esche is a battler, good both in traffic and in tight. Both of his conquests -- the Devils and the Leafs -- were against teams that created offense mostly in the zone, which fit Esche's style perfectly. Tampa Bay creates more in the open ice, meaning more cross-crease movement for Esche, which will stretch him beyond his strongest attributes.

Khabibulin's game is about getting post to post, something he does better than anyone in the game. Part of the reason Khabibulin has such great lateral crease coverage is that he plays deep, which could prove problematic if the Flyers forwards can get to the front of the net, as is their style, and keep him pinned to the goal line. In the first two postseason series, Khabibulin saw everything and moved unimpeded. That won't necessarily be the case against the Flyers. He'll have to fight for positioning and keep his focus in doing so.

The contrast in styles and what each netminder is likely to see sets this up as a series that might produce more goals than we've seen through two rounds. Look for multiple momentum shifts within each game, as both teams take turns exerting their respective strengths. The Lightning's Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards certainly will have their moments. So, too, will the Flyers' Keith Primeau, Jeremy Roenick and Mark Recchi. Ultimately, this series will come down to which defense is better suited to handle the opposition's style.

To that end, don't be caught off guard if the Lightning's 'D' moves its feet slightly better than the Flyers' rearguards move the puck, and Tampa Bay advances to the Stanley Cup finals as a result.

Darren Eliot, a former NHL goaltender, is a hockey analyst for SI.com.