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Philadelphia Flyers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Philadelphia Flyers at Tampa Bay Lightning.

PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Game 1.

TIME: Saturday, 3 p.m. EDT.

Regular season results are said to be irrelevant in the playoffs.

The Philadelphia Flyers certainly hope so.

After losing all four games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the regular season, the Flyers try to prove that meaningless when the teams meet in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Having already each won eight playoff games to reach this point, the Flyers and Lightning understandably have little concern for the regular season now. The fact remains, however, that Philadelphia was outscored 18-8 in four straight losses to Tampa Bay this season.

Lightning coach John Tortorella doesn't put any stock in his club's regular season success against the Flyers.

"That means squat," he said. "As far as what we did, what they did, you throw that right out the window. I think both teams by the time Saturday comes along, is going to have a pretty good understanding about what the other team is about."

One of Philadelphia's biggest concerns in this series will be its ability to control Tampa Bay's quartet of skilled and speedy forwards - something it couldn't do in the regular season. Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Fredrik Modin combined for 11 goals and 15 assists in four games against the Flyers.

"We'll have some tough matchups," Flyers captain Keith Primeau said. "They are young, talented, offensive kids who skate very well."

These teams haven't met since Feb. 17, and Philadelphia has made a couple of key acquisitions since that game. Center Alex Zhamnov has found a home on the Flyers' top line with Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte, and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov has added size and skill.

Using virtually the same roster all season has benefitted the Lightning, who went 28-7-2-5 in the second half and earned the top seed in the East with a franchise-record 106 points - five more than Philadelphia.

The first two rounds of the playoffs posed little trouble for Tampa Bay, which eliminated the New York Islanders in five games and swept Montreal in four straight. The Lightning have outscored opponents 26-10 this postseason.

Nearly every aspect of Tampa Bay's game has been outstanding, but Nikolai Khabibulin's goaltending has clearly been the biggest factor in the Lightning reaching the conference finals for the first time.

Khabibulin, in net for all four regular season wins against the Flyers, has been near perfect in the playoffs, allowing nine goals on 248 shots for a remarkable .964 save percentage. After recording three shutouts in five games against the Islanders, he gave up five goals on 107 shots against Montreal.

"Nik has been our best player and he is going to have to be our best player if we are going to move on in this thing," Tortorella said.

Though he doesn't have the numbers that Khabibulin does, Philadelphia's Robert Esche has already outplayed two of the best goaltenders in NHL history - New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and Toronto's Ed Belfour - in the first two rounds.

In his first postseason as a starter, Esche is 8-3 with a 2.02 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.

"He's battled some high-profile goalies, and now he has another one," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "This is another challenge. Hopefully, he's up for another one."

Philadelphia had a relatively easy first-round series, beating defending champion New Jersey in five games, but the conference semifinals against the Maple Leafs was a far more physical and demanding series.

Roenick's overtime goal in Game 6 sent the Flyers to the conference finals for the first time since 2000.

"We've had the harder path," Flyers winger Mark Recchi said. "They might have just played that well and made it easier on themselves. Time will tell. We've definitely played two hard, physical series, and they have not had a physical series."

Philadelphia is hoping Tampa Bay will be rusty because it will have been off eight days by the time the puck drops Saturday. The Flyers, meanwhile, will have had only three days off.

"You have an edge from the standpoint we are still in the mode of playing games," Primeau said. "This is just the right amount of time between games. I don't know how we would have responded if we had to play a Game 7 (against Toronto). I know having days off between round one and two is nice, but it starts to become long. Eight days will be difficult. Who knows how they'll react?"

The key to this series could be whether Philadelphia can do enough to contain Tampa Bay's speed and aggressive forecheck. After facing defensive-minded New Jersey and a veteran-laden team in Toronto, the Flyers now have to deal with the young, fast and highly skilled Lightning.

Philadelphia's job of containment becomes more difficult because of injuries to several key players.

Defenseman Kim Johnsson is playing with a broken bone in his right hand and Malakhov missed Game 6 against the Leafs with a possible concussion. Forward Sami Kapanen, who has been helping out on defense, was injured in overtime of Game 6 after a vicious hit from Toronto's Darcy Tucker, but is expected to play Saturday.

Though Tampa Bay will see a much more physical team than the ones it faced in the first two rounds, Tortorella doesn't want his club to change its style.

"We are going to play our game, we are going to be on the attack and we are going to go," he said. "How Philly plays is how Philly is going to play. We are not going to get away from how we play and we are very aware of that."

This is the second postseason meeting between the teams and first since Philadelphia defeated Tampa Bay in six games in the 1995-96 conference quarterfinals.

Game 2 is Monday at Tampa Bay.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Flyers - 3rd seed; beat New Jersey Devils 4-1, quarterfinals; beat Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2, semifinals. Lightning - 1st seed; beat New York Islanders 4-1, quarterfinals; beat Montreal Canadiens 4-0, semifinals.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Flyers - Primeau, 5 goals; Zhamnov, 8 assists and 12 points; Donald Brashear, 18 PIM. Lightning - Modin, 5 goals; St. Louis, 7 assists; Modin and St. Louis, 11 points; Andre Roy, Chris Dingman and Lecavalier, 12 PIM.

PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Flyers - Power play: 20.0 percent (7 for 35). Penalty killing: 88.9 percent (40 for 45). Lightning - Power play: 12.5 percent (5 for 40). Penalty killing: 84.6 percent (22 for 26).

GOALTENDERS: Flyers - Esche (8-3, 1 SO, 2.02 GAA); Sean Burke (0-0, 1.50). Lightning - Khabibulin (8-1, 4, 0.99); John Grahame (no appearances)

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Lightning, 4-0. Khabibulin was in net for all four wins against the Flyers, allowing eight goals on 99 shots. St. Louis had three goals and five assists and Modin had four goals and two assists for Tampa Bay. Esche, one of four goalies used by the Flyers against the Lightning, was 0-1 with a 3.60 goals-against average in two games.

Associated Press
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