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Philadelphia counters hustle with muscle

Published May 16, 2004

PHILADELPHIA - The game plan is basic, brutal. It is vicious, and it is violent. It revolves around very large men hitting smaller ones, relentlessly and repeatedly.

After four games, we have seen the way the Flyers prefer to play hockey.

With three games to go, perhaps, we will see what the Lightning can do about it.

It is down to this: Size vs. speed. Weight vs. wheels. Hercules vs. Mercury.

Score one for the muscle. If there was any secret about the Flyers strategy, and there shouldn't have been, the Lightning discovered it Saturday afternoon. The Flyers were able to win the fourth game of the East final because they were able to outmuscle the smaller Lightning players.

This was not the sort of game the Lightning prefers. It was like watching big kids against little kids. The Flyers, armed with the desperation that determined the winner of each game of this series, were able to impose their will, and their style, on the game.

They overpowered the Lightning physically. Their defensemen roved the ice like the linebackers of the '85 Bears. Keith Primeau waded through Tampa Bay's players like Godzilla skipping through Tokyo. For the second time, the Lightning looked small.

For the Flyers, this is what hockey is supposed to look like. It's the way everyone tries to play the Lightning. After all, how quick is a mongoose when it is pressed against the glass? How dangerous is Lightning when it is captured in a bottle?

For the Flyers, that always has been the plan. Primeau had talked on Friday of how badly the Flyers wanted to use their size advantage to punish the Lightning. Such a plan could pay dividends not only in the game at hand, but in the rest of the series as well.

"We have a certain mindset going in every night," Primeau said. "We hope by the end of the night or the end of a long series, it starts to pay dividends. We have some guys who are staying on that page."

The Flyers want to deliver the sort of checks that keep on giving. They want to leave an opponent slow from sore legs and dull from weary arms. They want to sap a team's spark, its focus, its spirit. They want Saturday's victory to carry over and affect Tuesday.

"In a long series, it starts to wear on the body and then it goes to your head," Primeau said.

In other words, the Flyers don't just want to beat the Lightning.

They want to beat up the Lightning.

We'll see. For the Lightning, this is nothing new. It's smaller than most teams, and it's spent most of the season fighting muscle with hustle. This series has been tougher, because the Flyers don't exactly plod. In the two games Tampa Bay has won this series, however, it has been able to pick its spots to be physical, to find the lanes and to capitalize on the opportunities.

"They're a physical team," Lightning forward Dave Andreychuk said. "We know that. We've seen it every game this series. It's not like it's a surprise to us. I thought we rebounded as the game went on."

There will be further opportunities. The contrast of styles is apparent. This series is like a boxing match. The bigger fighter usually wants to stand toe-to-toe and trade fists to the nose. The smaller one wants to stick and move.

That didn't happen in Game 4. The Lightning skated as if it was playing outside on Broad Street. For most of the day, it wasn't very good on the power play, and they gave up a short-handed goal to make matters worse. Coach John Tortorella was frustrated by the "poke checks" of his team in a quick, two-goals-in-85-seconds flurry by the Flyers.

In particular, the Lightning blew a wonderful opportunity in the first period. At one point, it had a 5-on-3 advantage and Primeau lost his stick; yet, the Lightning didn't score.

A goal there, and the Lightning could have been up 2-0 and on its way to a 3-1 lead in the series. Instead, it is tied 2-2 and the air is getting thin.

What? Did you expect this series to be that easy?

The Lightning won its first two series so quickly, so decisively that it is easy to forget that most playoff hockey games are punishing contests of endurance.

For the Lightning to salvage this series, it's going to have to do a better job of offsetting the Flyers' size advantage than it did Saturday. It needs these games to be a track meet. Philadelphia wants them to be a rugby match.

"We are a little bit of a smaller team back there," Boyle said. "We have to get better defensive positioning. We did that in Game 3. Sometimes (in Game 4), I thought we were caught on the wrong side of the puck."

For the Lightning, that's a lesson, too. It's not uncommon for a smaller opponent to beat a larger one, but to do so, he has to play smarter, sharper than the Lightning did in Game 3.

To win this series, the Lightning also has to be swift. Eventually, it's going to have to be better on the power play. And a little more desperation wouldn't hurt, either.

In other words, there is a plan in case your opponent wants to play like George Foreman on ice.

All you have to do is be Muhammad Ali.

[Last modified May 16, 2004, 01:00:38]

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