- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning scoff at the notion they’re not tough enough to beat the Philadelphia Flyers.

“I think when you start talking about physical play people equate that with big hits,” coach John Tortorella said. “To me, when it comes to toughness, it’s making a big play in traffic. … It’s you whacking me in the face and me not hitting you back and sitting in the [penalty] box. That’s tough.”

Tortorella is more apt to be impressed by one of his players throwing his body in front of a puck to help goalie Nikolai Khabibulin thwart a scoring opportunity than an enforcer knocking an opponent woozy along the boards.

The coach said while the Lightning’s speed and youth vs. the Flyers’ size and experience figures to be a crucial element of the Eastern Conference finals, it’s not necessarily the key to the series that begins today.

Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock agrees.

“Everybody is talking about our brawn. We don’t knock people through the boards. We have some people that play physically, but so do they,” Hitchcock said. “The strength of our team is our patience with the puck, especially in the offensive zone, and that’s the same as Tampa has.”

With 26 games in their postseason history, the Lightning are still relative playoff novices. They won a series for the first time last spring and eliminated the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens — two teams regarded as less physical than the Flyers — on the way to the conference finals.

Philadelphia lost all four regular-season games between the teams, but enter the series coming off wins over defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first two rounds.

The Flyers believe they are a much better team than the injured-riddled club the Lightning faced in January and February.

“This team has a lot of resolve. … We beat two good hockey teams to get here. We know how to play when it’s on the line. That’s a huge factor for us,” Hitchcock said.

Although the Lightning have the best record in the East during the regular season and have won seven straight in the playoffs, Tortorella said his team is still learning what the postseason is about.

The coach doesn’t feel slighted by questions about whether his young players have the mettle to advance against the more seasoned Flyers — in the conference finals for the 14th time.

“We don’t expect immediate respect. We’re not whining about getting respect,” Tortorella said. “We’re just going to go about our business and try to find our way. If you do it the right way, and we feel we’re doing it the right way, along the line a little respect comes.”

One of the keys to the opener will be how the Lightning respond after an eight-day break between series.

The Flyers have had three days to get ready since wrapping up their second-round win over Toronto in six games. Their challenge is finding a way to get to Khabibulin, who has four shutouts and an 0.99 goals against average in the playoffs.

“Eight days off is a long time at this time of year,” Philadelphia’s Keith Primeau said. “Rest is great. I think it’s crucial to making a long playoff run. But we like our situation … and feel three days is enough time to rest and prepare.”

Teammate Jeremy Roenick, who hasn’t been this far along in the playoffs since he helped Chicago to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992, said there’s an urgency to take advantage of the opportunity.

“No question, it fuels our hunger,” said Roenick, whose overtime goal won Game6 against the Maple Leafs.

“This is an opportunity that doesn’t present itself very often. Obviously, I haven’t been to this point in 12 years. It’s a sweet feeling. We want to keep it going as long as we can.”

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