Tampa Bay, FL – Philadelphia's week in the Sunshine State has now shifted coasts.
Following the 4-0 shutout victory over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night, the Flyers took a short flight to Tampa to prepare for their meeting with the Lightning on Friday night at the St. Pete Times Forum (7:30 p.m., CSN). While the sun shone outside on a beautiful Florida afternoon, the Flyers held practice shortly after 2:00 p.m.
In what was a much needed victory, Philadelphia played its most complete game since the Olympic break to move back into a tie with the New York Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division. Although it was just one victory, there seemed to be a weight lifted off of the players' shoulders as they boarded their flight after the game.
A victory over the Lightning would go even further than the convincing win over the Panthers, as Tampa Bay has won all three games against Philadelphia this season including a 6-0 drubbing of Philadelphia at the Wachovia Center in the teams' last meeting on January 28.
"I think if we play the same strong game that we played yesterday, we're going to give ourselves in a pretty good chance to win the game," said Simon Gagne, who leads the Flyers with 39 goals. "They are going to come with a lot of speed so we have to match that. If we don't, we're going to have a very hard time in their zone tomorrow."
Although the Lightning plays in the Southeast Division, there has been an intense rivalry between the two clubs dating back to the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs when Tampa Bay eliminated the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. The Lightning won all four of the matchups between the two teams during the regular season that year, too.
In is his first season with the Flyers, Peter Forsberg already senses the animosity between the two clubs.
"We don't play them that often, but I do understand that we have a tough time against them," said Forsberg. "We lost the first two and the third one at home, so we have to make sure we know how they want to play against us."
Still, Ken Hitchcock would rather focus his attention on how his own club is playing rather than doting on who is the opponent.
"Our focus right now really is all about us," said Hitchcock. "We know they are going to play well against us. They really get up to play us. I think right now, though, we're at a stage in our season where the games are coming fast and furious and our focus is just about who's next on the docket. If we put out or same team game tomorrow that we put out yesterday, then we'd be pretty happy. We know we can play that way."Handzus Skates Hard
The status of Michal Handzus, who has been out with a shoulder injury, has still not been determined as of Thursday afternoon. Handzus skated long and hard during the afternoon practice.
The team has felt his absence from the lineup.
"Michal is one of those players where you never know how much you miss them until they are gone for an extended period of time," said Hitchcock. "Then, all of a sudden, the little details that help you win hockey games aren't there, and you're giving that responsibility to someone else and hoping they take it. He's been a player that has played in every critical situation during the hockey game since I've coached here."
"He's a horse out there and definitely it is going to mean a lot to our team if he gets back to playing," said Forsberg. "He's plays the power play, the penalty kill, and he gets a lot of ice time and is a big body out there."
Handzus will probably find himself in a different role when he returns, shifting to left wing alongside Petr Nedved, whom Hitchcock is hoping to pair him with. The consummate team player, Handzus doesn't mind that one bit.
"I have no problems playing there," he said. "I'll play where they want me to play."Goaltenders Announced
Hitchcock said that Robert Esche would start in net against Tampa Bay, while Antero Niittymaki will get the call in Atlanta on Saturday. Esche will most likely face fellow Team USA Olympian John Grahame, while Niittymaki should be opposite Kari Lehtonen, who was unable to play for Finland in the Olympics and whom lost to Niittymaki and the Phantoms in the 2005 Calder Cup Finals.