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Thursday, May 20, 2004
Flyers composed on edge of elimination

By Rob Parent
Special to

PHILADELPHIA -- At this point, there's little Ken Hitchcock could say that would make a difference. Instead of the usual rim shot, his words might only be underscored by a solemn drumbeat.

The Flyers are down to perhaps a final playoff breath, still huffing and puffing from a track meet in Tampa two nights ago that resulted in a 4-2 loss and a 3-2 series deficit in the Eastern Conference finals.

Older and somewhat slower, bruised and much more battered, they have come home for Game 6 where they could at least die with dignity, if not muster the makings of a miracle.

"From our standpoint," Hitchcock said, "what we are trying to bank on is we got to this (elimination) stage last year and we didn't go all-in. We're closer, but we still have a ways to go. But if you look, the one thing you find out about this team (is that) the higher our sense of desperation, the more composure we play with, which is very unique."

Hitchcock, as well schooled a hockey mind and flexible a coaching tongue as there is, is highly regarded for his ability to adjust from game to game and joke to joke. So given a whole day to think about it, Flyers fans expect their head coach to somehow draft a script that has his club catching up to those younger Lightning legs, mend their many injuries, infuse some juice into a lifeless power play and eventually break down not only the "Bulin Wall" but also capture one of the sports world's great Golden Fleeces ...

A championship parade in Philadelphia.

Just one problem with that ...

"This," Tampa's amazing Martin St. Louis said, "is our time."

He's probably right, you know. The Calgary Flames are home on the ranch awaiting their Stanley Cup finals travel itineraries. Like the Lightning, they're young, talented and juiced. They're also the sixth seed in the West and perhaps don't match up well with the current Eastern survivors, especially that team from the other end of the continent that's a NHL prototype for expedited reconstruction.

So the obvious conclusive question: Are there any floats left over from the Bucs parade last year?

"The way this series has gone," Lightning coach John Tortorella said, "with all the changes of momentum, we're going to prepare to play another game in a tough building and try to grab some momentum and hopefully keep it -- keep it -- and try to get something done. But as far as what you do after, that cannot be something we need to think about. We just need to get ready for Game 6. That's all we can handle right now."

Tortorella is educated in these matters, if only because he knows too well that his Lightning team can be its own worst enemy, as it showed in Game 5 by almost blowing a three-goal lead. If Nikolai Khabibulin hadn't come up with 15 mostly spectacular saves in the third period Tuesday, the Flyers would be coming home ahead 3-2 and one step away from a pass into the Cup finals.

Instead, it is incumbent on Hitchcock to unveil another act of levitation. Pull an aged and tired team out of its grave for a sudden two-punch knockout, just as he did with that Dallas Stars team of five years ago that won the last two games of the Western Conference finals over Colorado and went on to win the Cup against an upstart and overmatched Buffalo Sabres club.

So wouldn't this scenario be just like, well, lightning striking twice for Hitchcock?

"We've done this a few times," Hitchcock said. "We know what's at stake. But you can't (say) ... like the one for the Gipper or, God forbid, listening to Bobby Knight or something like that? It doesn't work. It only works for the first five minutes. This is a combination of desperation and execution. Those two things go hand in hand."

For the desperation part, we present a Flyers defense with veterans Eric Desjardins and Marcus Ragnarsson sidelined, respectively, with a broken forearm and finger, and a hindered Kim Johnsson, who is playing to much less effect than usual with a fractured hand.

For execution, we present Tampa's penalty-killing units. Undeniably assisted by Johnsson's injury and Sami Kapanen's inexperience at playing the point, the Lightning have nonetheless aggressively killed 22 out of 23 of the Flyers' not-so-special power-play chances. Hitchcock isn't joking when he talks of how his club's power play is rendered less effective because his club's own penalty-killing efforts have fallen off -- Tampa built that a 3-0 lead in Game 5 with three power-play goals.

Any simple answers to all of these special teams questions?

"It's desperation," Mark Recchi said. "We have to be more desperate than what we've been."

So now Hitchcock has to play the part of desperate coach and get serious about finding that hidden something that could turn the series back around. Of course, he's running out of time.

Through the course of the first five games of these conference finals, Tortorella's cut-up of a coaching counterpart has already performed the equivalent of getting his nose dirty, skating his wing and playing his role as Master of the Mindgames.

Hitchcock has tried to get under the perceived thin skin of Tortorella by likening him to that cute little character who keeps popping out of the hole in Whack-A-Mole and saying Tortorella "has three strikes against him" because he's Italian, is from Boston and -- worst of all -- is a Red Sox fan.

Bill Buckner could not be reached for comment.

There were reports that the remark wasn't accepted in some South Philadelphia neighborhoods as the belly laugher Hitchcock intended it to be. Yet it was ignored by Tortorella, who already dished out a well-timed litany of verbal checks earlier in the series, and now is busy trying to push his healthier, faster and more neurotic team into the Stanley Cup finals.

It's where this Tampa Bay team belongs. It's where the Lightning will be with just one more victory in the series. Since his public calling out of Hitchcock and Flyers general manager Bob Clarke in the wake of a 6-2 Flyers win in Game 2, Tortorella has become an upstanding coaching citizen.

It's easier to do that when all the pressure is on the other guy.

"I really feel confident that if our desperation (Thursday night) is what it was in Game 4, that we are going to take this thing to a Game 7," said Hitchcock. "But that requires a lot of prodding and pushing and understanding."

For most of the core players on this very veteran Flyers team, one basic concept is understood -- this might be it for them. So while the time to end all the frivolous, funny talk is at hand, there is one cliché the Flyers should silently repeat to themselves all night long ...

Win or else.

"We've been saying that all season, that we're not sure where this group will be, not only a year from now but three months from now," said captain Keith Primeau. "Odds are that there will be changes. And on top of that, with the collective bargaining agreement ... we just don't know what to expect.

"We're not fooling ourselves. We're desperate, but we know they are coming in here with an intent of trying to finish this thing off as well."

Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to