Tuesday, May 4, 2004
Flyers know Leafs will learn from mistakes
By Rob Parent
Special to ESPN.com
The lights dim, the voice booms ... let history resume.
From the beginning of the pregame Philadelphia video, in which a pre-Rocky Stu Nahan introduces the Flyers as a new sports franchise, to the streams of pictures of Original Six legends in the Toronto pregame show, this roll-on-or-rebuild Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Flyers and Maple Leafs has been all about history.
So come the present, a Game 6 at Air Canada Centre tonight, all the homestanding Leafs have to do to find the strength to avoid elimination is take a look back ... just a little beyond the 7-2 loss to the Flyers on Sunday at Wachovia Center.
"Whether it's a loss or a big win, you've got to put those games behind you," said Flyers winger Tony Amonte, who might have found it easier since his team was on the winning side of that Game 5 score. "We know them and know that they're going to come at us hard. We know we're going to get their best game now and we've got to give them our best game. This series is a long way from over."
Really? Can't they get it over with already?
True, this series isn't as melodramatic -- or prolonged -- as the last time these teams met. In that 2003 conference quarterfinal series, every game seemed to go double-overtime (three of the seven actually did) and every play seemed to be fraught with physical dangers.
In this series, violence was put on the back burner -- at least until Game 5 was several minutes old and the Flyers had taken control of the series. Then the pushing and the shoving turned a little more serious, and the concussive effect seemed to take hold of those involved.
For instance, we present Mr. Darcy Tucker, just minutes after the blowout: "We've just got to remember that half the game was a 1-1 game."
Then as if to answer the wide eyes of the media gathering in front of him, Tucker added: "The last half of the game."
But is this the last gasp for the Leafs? Or do they stand a fair chance of at least getting this to a seventh game in a series in which the respective home team has had almost total control from start to finish?
The best guess here is no.
It was the Flyers who came out of that fifth game looking achy, if not breakable, despite earning a victory that pushed the Leafs to the end of the plank. Starting Flyers goalie Robert Esche and one of the Flyers' top defensemen, Vladimir Malakhov, had both left the game after just one period.
As it turned out, Esche was suffering only from the effects of a stomach virus that's been fighting its way around the Flyers locker room, while Malakhov might have a concussion that might not really be all that more serious than the humorous hockey credo "upper-body injury" would indicate.
Meanwhile, the Leafs had suffered a defeat that was as psychologically revealing as it was physically real. Now the Flyers have to find a way to benefit from it.
"They put a lot into it and they found a way to get back into the series (in Games 3 and 4)," said Flyers captain Keith Primeau, whose hat trick in Game 5 matched his total playoff goal collection with the Flyers entering this year's postseason. "But it was the same with us (Sunday), and that's what the playoffs are all about."
Thus far in these playoffs, the Leafs are 5-1 at home, 1-5 on the road. In the two games at the ACC, they've largely dominated the Flyers while winning relatively easily. So there is much reason to believe that being blown out Sunday in Philadelphia isn't indicative of what could or should happen Tuesday in Toronto.
Or is it?
"We'll forget about (Game 5) and they'll forget about it," Mark Recchi said. "We'll have to be a lot better up there if we want to come away with a win."
If they're looking for another historical perspective for comfort, the Leafs only have to look back five years to a series in the West -- one that Flyers coach and former Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock remembers well. His Stars were down in the series 3-2 going into Game 6 of the 1999 Western Conference finals against the Colorado Avalanche. Guess what happened.
"Ed played a perfect game," Hitchcock said quickly.
That would be Maple Leafs goalie Ed Belfour, who made 24 saves in a 4-1 win for Hitchcock's team in that Game 6, en route to an amazing turnaround that saw the Stars win the Stanley Cup.
Now who's looking for a repeat mini-miracle?
"We had 24 hours to recover from what had been a blow out (a 7-5 loss), and we were blown out big time," said Hitchcock of that memorable Stars series with the Avs. "We were tired and vulnerable but we recovered in 24 hours. And after that I think we just fed off that energy. So I know Eddie played well in that Game 6 then, but our team was unbelievable, too."
Can Toronto play the same way? History would offer the Leafs a chance, but not a completely revealing clue. After all, this is an elder, cranky and somewhat ailing team. You never know what to expect next from such impatient, aging souls.
For example, who would have thought Mats Sundin and Bryan McCabe would have teamed up to go a collective minus-9 in Game 5 alone? OK, maybe McCabe by himself, but with help from Sundin?
"We just looked like Swiss cheese out there," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said Sunday night. "We didn't have anybody that really stuck to the basic principles of the game."
Somehow, you get the idea that such behavior by the Maple Leafs is also a thing of the past.
Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.