Lightning will strike again

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:56 PM ET

 Running out of gas was not the primary problem for the Maple Leafs in their second-round elimination at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers.

 Running out of healthy bodies was.

  "I think the Leafs needed to get through that first round against Ottawa healthier," Toronto Sun NHL playoff analyst Paul Maurice said. "Going seven games against the Sens as opposed to, say five games, did take a toll in the next series against Philadelphia.

 "Having said that, Toronto came up against a relatively healthy, well-structured team in the Flyers that managed to outlast the Leafs."

 In Maurice's mind, health will continue to be the focus as the Flyers now meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final, a series which gets underway today at the St. Pete's Forum.

 Back at the trade deadline two months ago Maurice publicly predicted that the Lightning would emerge as the Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup final.

 And while he is sticking to his pick, Maurice, the man who led the Carolina Hurricanes to the final two years ago, is surprised that the Flyers are not more banged up after gruelling series against the Leafs and defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils.

 "When I first selected Tampa Bay I figured the team they would meet for the conference title would be pretty beat up," Maurice said. "But the Flyers had an easier time, at least health-wise, than I thought.

 "Nevertheless I'm sticking with the Lightning because they still are the healthier team."

 Without further ado, here is Maurice's breakdown of the series.

 FORWARDS

 "I think Philly's offence is more structured, especially on the forecheck. They have talented players up front, sure, but they have bought into Ken Hitchcock's system. Philly likes to cycle, and I wouldn't be surprised if Tampa allows them puck possession in the Lightning end so long as the middle is clogged up. That's where Tampa will concentrate on stopping the Flyers. While both teams do concentrate on defence first, John Tortorella's offensive style is more wide open. Vincent LeCavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis are very creative players."

 EDGE:Lightning

 DEFENCE

 "Tampa Bay's defence does not receive the respect it deserves. This unit is better than people think.The addition of Darryl Sydor was key because the veteran defenceman joins Dan Boyle as the guys on the back end who are looked at to lug the puck up the ice. Both have done that quite successfully. And don't forget Pavel Kubina, who has developed into one of the most underrated blue liners in the league. Philly's defence is good, but there are a couple of banged-up bodies back there."

 EDGE:Slight to Lightning because its defence is healthier.

 GOAL

 "Admittedly Nik Khabibulin is more experienced than Robert Esche, but what does that matter right now? The key is how each guy is performing in the post-season and, to date, you would pretty much have to call it even. Both teams have capable backups in Sean Burke (Flyers) and John Grahame (Lightning), two guys who could step in and do a credible job whenever called upon."

 EDGE: Even.

 COACHING

 "Both Ken Hitchcock and John Tortorella are well prepared, and both are hard line in their visions of their respective teams. Players have had to fall in line and buy into what their coaches are preaching or else."

 EDGE: Even.

 INTANGIBLES

 "I think the two most significant intangibles are Tampa Bay's layoff and Philly's health. Tampa has been off for more than a week, so it will be interesting to see how long it takes for the intensity to return there. As for Philly, you wonder about how Sami Kapanen's feeling after being crushed by Toronto's Darcy Tucker in Game 6? And what about Kim Johnsson, who used his wrong hand while shaking hands at the end of that Leafs series? Maybe there still are concerns about the fracture in his other hand."

 EDGE: Even.

 THE SKINNY

 "Philly's health is the key to this one, especially if they are hiding some injuries too. Losing a veteran leader like Eric Desjardins for the playoffs was a key blow, and who knows how bad Kapanen and Johnsson are hurting?"

 PREDICTION

 The Lightning in six.


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