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On a mission

Tired but hungry, Maple Leafs' willpower will lift them past Flyers in seven

Posted: Wednesday April 21, 2004 11:35AM; Updated: Wednesday April 21, 2004 12:24PM
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No. 3 Philadelphia vs. No. 4 Toronto

OVERVIEW

Second-Round Breakdowns

SI.com's Kostya Kennedy breaks down the conference semifinals.

Eastern Conference
Lightning-Canadiens | Flyers-Maple Leafs
Western Conference
Red Wings-Flames | Sharks-Avalanche

In a series between evenly matched teams, the Flyers have the fresher and younger legs. Look for Philadelphia to get out to an early lead in the series. Then watch Toronto climb back in it.

FORWARDS

Toronto sniper Joe Nieuwendyk has his groove on. He's terrific at picking his spots -- even the first "soft" goal that Ottawa's Patrick Lalime allowed in Game 7 was the work of a true goal scorer; lifting a knuckling shot to that in-between waist area that gives goalies a hard time. If the Leafs get Mats Sundin back (lower-body injury), they'll have their weapons in place. But the Flyers are deeper and more diversified in talent. When a player like Michal Handzus is nominally the sixth-best forward on your team (as is the case in Philly), you know you're loaded. Jeremy Roenick and Alex Zhamnov are extremely dangerous.

Edge: Flyers

DEFENSE

Kim Johnsson continues to stand out for the Flyers, and Philadelphia will seriously miss him if he misses much time (fractured hand). Overall, Philadelphia has good skill on defense, but not enough grit to match up against Toronto's elbow-up forwards. The Leafs' blueliners are also longer on skill than physical prowess -- Brian Leetch and Bryan McCabe are the horses for Toronto -- and those stars can make the difference in a game.

Edge: Maple Leafs

COACHING

Both Pat Quinn (Leafs) and Ken Hitchcock (Flyers) will use the media to try to get into the heads of their opponent. And both are savvy in making adjustments as a game and a series unfolds. It would be a surprise to see either of these smart men get outcoached. But Hitchcock's expert, micromanaging ways -- and the fact that Philadelphia, for the moment, is accepting that style -- give him a slight upper hand.

Edge: Flyers

GOALIE

Ed-die, Ed-die, Ed-die! OK, Philadelphia's Robert Esche did a good job quieting his doubters in Round 1, and, with the exception of one shaky game, was tremendous in beating the Devils. But Toronto's Ed Belfour is a true playoff warrior who knows he's nearing the end of his superb career. He's locked in and only needs to guard against fatigue.

Edge: Maple Leafs

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both teams have excellent interchangeable forwards on the power play -- the Leafs will be helped greatly should Sundin come back. Leetch at the point is due for a goal or two. The Flyers, on balance, are a bit tighter on the penalty kill, though both of these teams' units can be beaten.

Slight Edge: Maple Leafs

INTANGIBLES

This is ostensibly similar to the Calgary-Detroit matchup in that one team is coming off an exhausting seven-game series and the other has had a little time to lick its first-round wounds. Toronto, an aging group, has to be physically spent after the run that Ottawa gave it. And the Leafs will have only one day off between series. But they're are on a mission (no Stanley Cup since '67!), and if Owen Nolan were to come back this series, Leafs fans will blow the roof off the joint in Toronto.

Edge: Even (If Nolan returns, edge shifts to Leafs)

OVERALL

Talent-wise, the Flyers and Leafs are remarkably similar. This series will come down to who wants it more. While the Flyers have real hungry leaders at the top of their roster, the Maple Leafs' will and passion runs a little deeper. Toronto wins in seven games.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.

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