Leafs Look To Get Back In It
GAME: Philadelphia Flyers at Toronto Maple Leafs.
PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; Flyers lead 2-0.
TIME: Wednesday, 7 p.m. EDT.
History is on the side of the Philadelphia Flyers.
More importantly, they have a goaltender at the top of his game.
Philadelphia will look to ride the strong play of Robert Esche to a 3-0 series lead against the Toronto Maple Leafs when this semifinal series shifts to Air Canada Centre for Game 3.
As he did in the quarterfinals against New Jersey, Esche continues to silence critics that believed goaltending was Philadelphia's biggest question heading into the postseason.
Despite appearing in just one playoff game before this season, Esche has led the Flyers to six wins in seven postseason contests, posting a 1.58 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage. He has won four straight since losing to New Jersey in Game 3 of the quarterfinals, allowing three goals on 117 shots.
"I knew this was how he could play," Flyers forward Mark Recchi said. "We believed he could play like this. He has matured as a person and a goalie in the time he's been here."
Esche stopped 26 shots and Alexei Zhamnov scored on the power play midway through the third period to lead Philadelphia to a 2-1 victory in Game 2 on Sunday.
Donald Brashear also scored a power-play goal for Philadelphia, which has never lost a best-of-seven series in which it won the first two games, going 16-0.
"We've had the right save at the right time, scored the right power-play goal at the right time and preserved games in the last minute despite making a few mistakes," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We've played two teams that were equal or better than us all year, but we just seem to be doing a few little things on the right side of that fine line. We certainly haven't dominated anyone."
Though it takes four wins to advance, a loss in Game 3 would likely signal the end of Toronto's season. Only two teams in NHL history - the 1942 Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders - have erased a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
This series could be a very short one if the Leafs can't find a way to generate more offence.
Toronto managed only 14 goals in its seven-game series against Ottawa in the quarterfinals, but advanced due to the superb play of goalie Ed Belfour. While Belfour hasn't performed badly in this series, he has been outplayed by Esche and the Leafs have scored just two goals.
Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Bryan McCabe and Tie Domi have accounted for 12 of Toronto's 16 playoff goals, while Alexander Mogilny, Nik Antropov, Darcy Tucker and Ron Francis have combined for only one.
"We have a lot of guys who are muckers and bangers and throw their heart on the ice, but they don't always have the hands to finish it off," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. "That's showing up now. Our guys who are thought of as scorers have to work harder to get chances."
Even the return of captain Mats Sundin for Game 2 couldn't help the Leafs beat the Flyers, who have won five of six meetings between the teams this season. Sundin, who missed four games with a leg injury, had no points and registered three shots on goal Sunday.
While the Leafs got their captain back, Nieuwendyk, the team leader with five playoff goals, sat out with a likely back injury and is doubtful for Game 3. Toronto is also still without power forward Owen Nolan.
"You always like to field what you think is your best lineup, and that hasn't been the case for us for much of the year," Quinn said.
Toronto can take some solace in the fact that the last time it lost the first two games of a playoff series, it came back to beat Detroit in the 1993 quarterfinals. The Leafs are 4-16 when losing the first two games of a best-of-seven series.
"You come into every series with the mentality you are preparing to battle for seven games," Francis said. "You don't look at having to win four of the next five, you look at Game 3. We believe we can win and be successful."
While Esche has been excellent, a case can be made that Zhamnov has been Philadelphia's best postseason performer.
Zhamnov leads the Flyers with four goals and 10 points, and is tied for the team lead with six assists. He has at least one point in all seven playoff games. Zhamnov's line, which includes Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick, has eight goals and 15 assists in seven games.
"I'm not surprised," said Amonte, who played on Zhamnov's line with the Chicago Blackhawks. "I knew what Alex was all about before he came here. He's a great two-way player. As great as he is offensively, people overlooked him defensively. He handles the puck so well. He loves to pass, and for a guy like myself you love playing with a guy like that."
Philadelphia has been without defenceman Kim Johnsson for the first two games of this series, and he remains questionable for Game 3. Johnsson hasn't played since breaking a bone in his right hand in Game 5 against New Jersey.
Game 4 is Friday at Toronto.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Flyers - 3rd seed; beat New Jersey Devils 4-1, quarterfinals. Maple Leafs - 4th seed; beat Ottawa Senators 4-3, quarterfinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Flyers - Zhamnov, 4 goals and 10 points; Zhamnov and Roenick, 6 assists; Sami Kapanen, Marcus Ragnarsson and Keith Primeau, 6 PIM. Maple Leafs - Nieuwendyk, 5 goals; Brian Leetch, 6 assists and 6 points; Tie Domi, 15 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Flyers - Power play: 30.0 percent (6 for 20). Penalty killing: 87.5 percent (21 for 24). Maple Leafs - Power play: 10.5 percent (4 for 38). Penalty killing: 88.4 percent (38 for 43).
GOALTENDERS: Flyers - Esche (6-1, 1 SO, 1.58 GAA); Sean Burke (no appearances). Maple Leafs - Belfour (4-5, 3, 1.72); Trevor Kidd (no appearances).-- Associated Press