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Game 4 winner could go a long way to deciding Leafs-Flyers winner

Posted: Thursday April 29, 2004 12:53PM; Updated: Friday April 30, 2004 12:25PM
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No. 3 Philadelphia vs. No. 4 Toronto


Think home ice doesn't matter? In this series it does. Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said he expected the Maple Leafs to hit harder when the series moved to Toronto, and his expectations certainly were met. After a lackluster start to the series, the Maple Leafs came out a renewed and more physical team in Game 3. Toronto also has Mats Sundin back in the lineup, and we're seeing a team that finally has shaken off the emotional and physical drain of its opening-round series against Ottawa. Expect this series to continue to be a tale of two cities --Philadelphia, buoyed by its line of Alexei Zhamnov, Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte is proving to be extremely imposing at home. And both teams' coaches are good at using the last line change to get the matchups they want; Toronto's Pat Quinn did this well in Game 3, especially in protecting Sundin.


The insertion into the lineup and the inspired play of Maple Leafs right wing Wade Belak, who hadn't played all postseason before Quinn dressed him for Game 3. Belak turned in a solid 14 minutes, virtually all at even strength, and set the tone for Toronto by hitting the Flyers early and often -- he also did it cleanly avoiding any costly penalties and, defensively, he helped neutralize Keith Primeau's line. Several Leafs talked after the game about how Belak's play sparked them, including his linemate Alexei Ponikarovsky who had his first goal of the playoffs.


Toronto needs to win Game 4 or it's done. Sundin needs to stay in the flow -- he played very well in Game 3 -- and Toronto needs him to pot a goal or two to relieve some of the pressure off the other forwards. The Leafs know they can count on Alex Mogilny and slick defensemen Bryan McCabe and Brian Leetch to create offense, but Sundin's production is vital, especially if Joe Nieuwendyk is out of the lineup.


They win Game 4, and they get back to the intensity level they showed in the first two games. If defenseman Kim Johnsson can get back into the lineup, Philadelphia suddenly will look a lot deeper. Winger Sami Kapanen filled in well on defense, but having Johnsson out not only weakens the Flyers' vulnerable defense, it also weakens the forward lines. Another note to the Flyers and their fans: The team needs to stay firmly behind goalie Robert Esche, even if he should struggle in Game 4. Philadelphia is a place that can eat up a goaltender's confidence, and Esche cannot afford to lose his for a moment.


This is a very even series that could go the full seven games. Because the Flyers have the extra home game -- as well as a 2-1 series lead -- they're the pick to win and move on.

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