- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

VOORHEES, N.J. — Their top two centers were both seriously injured during the playoff stretch drive.

Both of their goalies were hurt at the same time, forcing unproven rookies to man the nets.

Their senior defenseman is through for the year with a twice-broken arm.

And they carry the burden of losses in three of four playoff series the previous three seasons — plus their city’s failure to win a title in any pro sport for more than two decades.

And yet the Philadelphia Flyers head into tonight’s Game3 of the deadlocked (1-1) Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning knowing that wins in the three home games will get them to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1997.

Three victories over the Lightning, who finished with the second-best regular-season record in the league and lost just once in beating the New York Islanders and Montreal in the first two rounds, seems like a formidable task. But the Flyers are coming off a 6-2 shellacking of host Tampa Bay on Monday and are 6-0 at Wachovia Center this postseason.

“Last year there were times that we just took winning for granted … at home,” said coach Ken Hitchcock. “We didn’t set any tone. We have done a much better job of that this year. We have played really well in our building. The last game we played in our building was the best game we’ve played all year. So we’re hoping that we can duplicate it.”

The Flyers have won those six home playoff games by a whopping 21-9 margin. Right wing Mark Recchi noted, however, that the Lightning are 4-0 on the road this postseason.

“If we don’t win tomorrow night, what we did Monday gets thrown out the window,” Recchi said.

The Flyers are an older team — 13 of their 23 players are 30 or older — but they haven’t been together long. General manager Bob Clarke, who captained Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975, is a relentless tinkerer. Hitchcock, who guided Dallas to the Cup in 1999 and to the finals in 2000, is the sixth coach of Clarke’s 10-year tenure. Only eight Flyers predate Hitchcock’s arrival two years ago tomorrow. That’s as many as have come aboard this season, including center Alexei Zhamnov, who has a team-high 12 playoff points.

But Clarke’s best move might be the one he didn’t make. Not only did he anoint Robert Esche as the No.1 goalie after last May’s trade of Roman Cechmanek, a postseason disappointment, he stuck with the 25-year-old American despite pressure to deal for a more experienced playoff netminder. Esche has responded with a solid 2.10 goals-against average.

“There’s never a dull moment when you’re a Flyer,” said right wing Tony Amonte, a veteran of 13 NHL seasons who came to Philadelphia 14 months ago. “That’s what makes playing here so exciting.”

Despite all those changes, what most of the Flyers have in common is the hunger for a title. Only Recchi (Pittsburgh, 1991), John LeClair (Montreal, 1993) and Vladimir Malakhov (New Jersey, 2000) have won the Cup. Only Jeremy Roenick (Chicago, 1992), Keith Primeau (Detroit, 1995), LeClair (Philadelphia, 1997) and Sami Kapanen (Carolina, 2002) have also been to the finals.

“For a lot of our guys, time is running out,” Primeau said. “We have a wonderful opportunity, and we want to make sure that we take advantage of it.”

The Flyers are taking advantage of it with nine-time All-Star center Roenick moving to right wing and left wing Kapanen switching to defense. Philadelphia, long one of the most European-adverse teams, now has 12 including all six defensemen.

“What we went through this year really brought everybody together,” Recchi said. “I said all along that we were going to get stronger because we were getting [Primeau and Roenick] back at the end of the year. The roles were going to get defined. We’ve been through so many changes that what happened in the past really isn’t a focus in the room. There’s absolutely a hunger here. Let’s hope we’re the most desperate team.”

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