Hitchcock: Rivalry 'as heated as it gets'

Originally Published: April 21, 2004
Associated Press

VOORHEES, N.J. -- The Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs simply don't like each other.

The adversaries will renew their unpleasant rivalry Thursday night in Philadelphia in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

"They're not a team that you have to work hard to build a hate for," Toronto coach Pat Quinn said Wednesday. "Enough said."

The Flyers beat the Maple Leafs last spring in a grueling first-round series that lasted the equivalent of nine games -- seven games and seven overtimes.

Quinn is expecting another tough series with the well-rested Flyers, who advanced by beating Stanley Cup champion New Jersey in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

"They are a competitive bunch, and we'll have to be at our competitive best to have any hope of going by them," Quinn said.

Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock didn't have to motivate his team for this matchup.

"The rivalry is as heated as it gets," Hitchcock explained.

The Flyers haven't played since Saturday, when they eliminated the Devils. Toronto needed seven games to beat Ottawa, winning 4-1 Tuesday night.

Although four days of rest could be an advantage for the Flyers, it could work against them if they come out flat. The Leafs could be tired, or they might ride the momentum of their victory over the Senators into this series.

"They're already at a high level because they don't have enough time to think about it," Hitchcock said. "We're the ones who have to kick-start our own engine.

"I think they're going to continue on just like it's Game 8. We're the ones who have to catch up here. We're the ones who have to be challenged there."

Both teams have key injuries. The Flyers are without defenseman Eric Desjardins for the playoffs because of a forearm injury.

Kim Johnsson, the team's top remaining defenseman, could miss the series opener because he has a broken bone in his right hand. Johnsson practiced for 15 minutes Wednesday, and a decision on his status could come after the pregame skate.

Toronto was without captain Mats Sundin, the team's leading scorer, for the final three games against Ottawa because of an injury to his lower body. Also, former All-Star forward Owen Nolan remains sidelined with a knee injury, though he hopes to come back later in the series.

"I don't think they're any more beat up than we are," Hitchcock said. "They're missing a couple of forwards like we're potentially missing a couple of defensemen."

The Flyers had success against the Leafs in the regular season, winning the first three meetings by a combined margin of 15-2. Toronto won 3-2 in Philadelphia on March 18, with veteran Brian Leetch scoring his first two goals for the Leafs.

For the second straight series, Flyers goaltender Robert Esche will be matched against a goalie who has won a Stanley Cup. This time, it's Ed Belfour. In his first playoff series as a starter, Esche outplayed New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, allowing nine goals in the series on 155 shots.

Belfour, who turned 39 Wednesday, was spectacular against Ottawa with three shutouts.

"He's an amazing man. It's nice to see him play so well," Leafs forward Darcy Tucker said. "He's a guy that comes to work every day and gives it his all. He's a real leader in our dressing room. We're fortunate to have him."

Belfour was Dallas' goalie when Hitchcock led the Stars to the Stanley Cup championship in 1999. Hitchcock couldn't resist poking fun at his former goaltender.

"I heard Belfour was 39 today," Hitchcock said. "I think he's lying. I really believe he was born in the '50s."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press