March 18, 2004
GAME: Toronto Maple Leafs (39-23-9-3) at Philadelphia Flyers (37-17-14-6).
TIME: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. EST.
The Philadelphia Flyers eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs in a physical and grueling seven-game playoff series last season.
Another playoff meeting between the teams this season may not be so close.
Philadelphia - seeking its first four-game regular season sweep of Toronto - looks to take another step closer to the Atlantic Division title when the Maple Leafs visit the Wachovia Center.
The Flyers have dominated the Maple Leafs this season, winning all three meetings by a combined 16-2 score. Including Game 7 of last season's Eastern Conference quarterfinals, Philadelphia has outscored Toronto 22-3 during a four-game win streak.
Following a 3-3 tie at Pittsburgh on Sunday, the Flyers flew to Amelia Island, Florida for three days of relaxation designed to bring a team with several new players closer together for the stretch run.
"It's always a good situation to do something like this," defenseman Danny Markov said. "This is good stuff. Just go away. Go away from the big city, from Philly to a small place. It gives us a chance to talk to each other."
Philadelphia comes back from its vacation with a comfortable lead over New Jersey in the Atlantic and trailing Tampa Bay by one point for the best record in the East. The Flyers are unbeaten in four straight overall (2-0-2) and have a six-game unbeaten streak at home (5-0-1).
Robert Esche - Philadelphia's undisputed starting goalie - has been outstanding lately, allowing eight goals during a personal 4-0-1 run. Included in that span are two victories over Martin Brodeur and the Devils.
"What I'm doing is, if it is my time, I'd be cheating myself if I did put more pressure on myself," Esche said. "I don't want to put any added pressure on. The team, the media, the fans are going to do that. I don't want to go out and say, 'This is my time and I don't want to go out and screw it up.' Because if I do that, then I'm screwing it up."
The Flyers are still without injured centers Jeremy Roenick and Keith Primeau and defenseman Eric Desjardins.
It looked like Toronto would be very difficult to beat after acquiring future Hall of Famers Brian Leetch and Ron Francis, but four losses in six games have dropped the Leafs three points behind Boston for the Northeast Division lead.
After scoring four unanswered goals in a 6-5 overtime victory at Buffalo on Monday, Toronto returned home Tuesday and lost 2-1 to the Bruins on ex-Leaf Travis Green's goal with 7:29 to play.
"We've got an ugly act right now," Toronto coach Pat Quinn said. "That last goal is exactly what's causing us problems. We lost the battle along the boards and then lost the battle in front of the net. That's not playoff hockey."
The Leafs also have injury problems. Missing from Tuesday's lineup were forwards Darcy Tucker and Mikael Renberg and defenseman Ken Klee.
STANDINGS: Maple Leafs - 90 points, 2nd place (tied), 3 PB, Northeast Division. Flyers - 94 points, 1st place, Atlantic Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Maple Leafs - Mats Sundin, 29 goals, 40 assists and 69 points; Tie Domi, 201 PIM. Flyers - Mark Recchi, 26 goals, 43 assists and 69 points; Donald Brashear, 200 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through March 16): Maple Leafs - Power play: 20.2 percent (69 for 341), 5th in NHL. Penalty killing: 83.3 percent (289 for 347), 20th. Flyers - Power play: 23.2 percent (63 for 271), 1st. Penalty killing: 83.9 percent (266 for 317), 14th.
GOALTENDERS: Maple Leafs - Ed Belfour (28-18-5, 7 SO, 2.17 GAA); Trevor Kidd (6-5-2, 1, 3.26). Flyers - Esche (20-7-6, 2, 1.89); Sean Burke (14-20-7, 1, 2.85).
SEASON SERIES: Flyers, 3-0.
LAST MEETING: Jan. 17; Flyers, 4-0. At Toronto, Esche stopped 35 shots for his second shutout of the season, and Michal Handzus scored twice as Philadelphia completed a sweep of a home-and-home series.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Maple Leafs - 19-10-7-1 on the road; Flyers - 23-7-3-3 at home.-- Associated Press