While Philadelphia makes its 14th conference finals appearance, Tampa Bay is making its first. The experience on this season's Flyers roster will play a vital factor, as will the raw talent of the Lightning's top stars.
The echoes from Keith Primeau's resounding performance in Game 5 of the Flyers' series against the Maple Leafs are still resounding. Primeau had a hat trick, leveled Toronto left and right and controlled the game as if he was Mark Messier in his prime. Then in the clincher, Jeremy Roenick made two huge plays (including the top-shelf overtime shot to win the game) and his line reasserted itself as it had in the first round. Even with John LeClair a shell of his former self, the Flyers run deep, deep, deep in forwards, especially now that Sami Kapanen is back up front after filling in for the injured Kim Johnsson on the Philadelphia defense. It's tough to bet against the potent, quick-strike Lightning, who now have Vincent Lecavalier very much in the offensive flow along with Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, but the Flyers' group is more experienced and stronger on the last two lines.
Philadelphia is helped greatly by the return of Johnsson, but it now may be without Vladimir Malakhov, who was anchoring the blueline before he suffered an apparent concussion and missed Game 6 against Toronto. Without Malakhov, the Flyers' defense is highly vulnerable; even with him, Philadelphia is not intimidating enough to get Tampa's top forwards off the puck. The Lightning's quietly effective corps, which still leans heavily on homegrown Pavel Kubina, is getting a great boost from the playoff experience that Darryl Sydor and Brad Lukowich got while developing with the Stars.
Robert "Silent Bob" Esche has made all the saves for Philadelphia, as he moves toward establishing himself as a legitimate playoff goalie. Nikolai Khabibulin, though, can be impenetrable and can demoralize an opposing offense -- as his four shutouts and 1.00 goals-against-average reveal.
An established maestro in the Flyers' Ken Hitchcock meets an ascending star in the Lightning's John Tortorella. Both are tough-minded and exacting, and they adjust well to changing situations. Hitchcock, though, is more advanced in the psychological gamesmanship that goes on both with his team and the opponent's at this critical time of year.
Both teams have enough weapons up front to use the open ice on the power play, which will test the penalty-killing that Hitchcock and Tortorella both stress. Philadelphia also gets good play from the point with the man advantage. But Tampa Bay has an extra element in that it is extremely dangerous short-handed.
The Lightning are well-rested after an easy romp through the first two rounds. The Flyers come in banged up, but on a high off of Primeau's performance and then the overtime win that silenced the thundering crowd in Toronto. The Flyers' 0-4 record against the Lightning in the regular season is irrelevant, but their experience in these kind of big games is not.
Another evenly matched series for Philadelphia, which will have to find out a way to grind out wins and sneak pucks past the Bulin Wall. The Flyers will get burned once or twice too often by the swift Lightning. Tampa Bay in six.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.