Posted: Friday May 14, 2004 2:58PM; Updated: Friday May 14, 2004 5:52PM
No. 1Tampa Bay vs. No. 3Philadelphia
STORY OF THE SERIES
The Lightning got their first real gut check of the playoffs after Philadelphia rolled to a 6-2 win in Game 2. That game, in which Tampa Bay played poorly from the outset and then showed its ugliest side by committing a raft of third-period penalties, ratcheted this series into a rage. Coaches John Tortorella and Ken Hitchcock traded pointed words before Game 3. (Tortorella: "[Hitchcock] should shut his yap." Hitchcock: "John needs to mind his own business.") Suddenly the series took on a real edge. Then Tampa responded with a solid win in Philadelphia, thus taking another step in its ongoing quest to prove its playoff mettle. Although Hitchcock has downplayed Tampa's speed, that speed has clearly been the deciding factor at key points in this series. The Lightning can score faster than you can say "lemmehaveanotherbeerandacheesesteak" and are moving the puck almost as fast as they are moving their skates.
SURPRISE OF THE SERIES
The absolutely flat effort of Tampa Bay in Game 2 came like a bolt out of nowhere. The Lightning had won eight straight and were getting consistent goaltending game in and game out before that meltdown. At this point in a playoff push it's rare for a team to show such little intensity and for a top-flight goalie like Nikolai Khabibulin to look so bewildered. By the time the Lightning started to play like they cared, the Flyers were already up five goals. Another surprise has been the lack of production from the Flyers' power play, which has only one goal in the series and was shut out in Games 1 and 3. Often, especially in Game 3 when the Flyers were 0-for-5 with the man advantage, Philadelphia simply hasn't put enough power-play pressure on Khabibulin. The Flyers have the skill to be much more effective with the extra man.
THE FLYERS WIN IF ...
They get the kind of effort they're getting from Keith Primeau from a few more of their top players. Primeau has been a physical presence, offensively and defensively throughout the series, playing like a true captain. But the rest of the Flyers have yet to follow suit. While Sami Kapanen has played well, Philadelphia needs a sustained effort from forwards Mark Recchi, Jeremy Roenick and Alexei Zhamnov, all of whom have been hard to find this series. Philadelphia also needs an outstanding run from goaltender Robert Esche. With the exception of a shaky (and costly) first period in Game 3, Esche has played pretty well in this series. Pretty well, however, is not enough. Esche needs to be brilliant because Tampa Bay is going to get its share of breakaways and odd-man rushes. If Esche can't snuff them out in big spots, Tampa will pile on goals.
THE LIGHTNING WIN IF ...
They get a little tighter play out of their defense. Though the Lightning allowed just the one goal in Game 3, Philadelphia looked very dangerous for much of the middle of the game, and it was Khabibulin's dominance that kept the Flyers off the board. The Lightning can't let themselves get too comfortable relying on Khabibulin and they need all six of their defensemen buckling down. Tampa Bay also has to continue to move the puck aggressively, even when it has the lead. Doing that should continue to create open ice which is what the Lightning thrive on.
With better goaltending, fresher legs and a one-game lead in this series, the Lightning should be able to move on to the finals. But not without a fight. Tampa Bay wins this in six games.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.