Bench battle looms in East

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:58 PM ET

 In the Eastern Conference final between the Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning, which starts this afternoon, the lights are safe. They will not be shot out.

 Instead, it will be a series that may bore casual fans but will delight the cognoscenti.

  It will be a battle of strategies, counter-strategies, matchups and mind games.

 Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock has a black belt in post-season strategy, and now we're going to find out if Tampa's John Tortorella is also a master, or merely a bright coach still moving along the learning curve.

 You can start with the premise that the Lightning players will try to establish themselves behind the Flyers net.

 They've done it all season long. They're not going to change now.

 As a result, the Flyers have been told not to make any ill-advised charges. Patience is their key here, simply because the Lightning will be patient.

 "Their attitude is they play keep-away," Hitchcock said. They won't try to force a shot just because they're in deep. They'll try to create a solid opportunity.

 "They hang on to it," he said. "They wait for you to commit and they take advantage of it."

 But at the other end, the Flyers have no intention of being so patient. They want to play in front of the net, not behind it. They want to get in the crease to make life difficult for Nikolai Khabibulin, whose post-season goals-against average is a phenomenal 0.99. And they want to do it in a hurry.

 "He's a lot like Patrick Roy," Hitchcock said. "If you don't get to him early in the hockey game and you don't put a little bit of doubt in his mind, I don't think you score on him."

 So big forwards such as Keith Primeau and John LeClair will be going to the net, and there's not a lot the Tampa defencemen can do about it.

 But that doesn't automatically mean the Flyers will score.

 "I think you have to get away from the old thinking that you have to tie them up and budge them away from the front of the net," Tortorella said. "You lock into a guy in front of the net and a passing lane opens up.

 "You do different things. We know they are going to have traffic there. Nik knows there is going to be traffic there. It's a matter of fighting through it. It's a matter of blocking shots."

 Hitchcock conceded that the Bolts do indeed employ that tactic.

 "They play a five-goalie system," he said. "They're blocking shots."

 And you don't necessarily have to move a player to render him ineffective.

 "I learned how to basically take their sticks away," defenceman Brad Lukowich said. "You can't score without a stick."

 But the fact remains that some player matchups are more one-sided than others. This series will be a never-ending battle of matchups.

 Tortorella will make Hitchcock's life difficult by using three basic lines but occasionally altering a player here and there.

 When he does so, Hitchcock has to find a counter-move because with his personnel, he can't go with three lines.

 The Flyers are older and less resilient. In a pure three-line game, they're toast. Instead, Hitchcock will utilize a man-on-man situation against Tampa's key players.

 Maple Leafs fans saw how Hitchcock outmanoeuvred Pat Quinn by using Keith Primeau against Mats Sundin, thereby limiting Sundin's ice time. But Hitchcock didn't use Primeau's whole line, just Primeau with whichever wingers were due.

 He'll follow a similar pattern against the Lightning.

 But all these tactics are just the beginning -- the plans for the series opener. After that, one team will have found itself lacking in certain areas.

 And all the tactics will change again for Game 2.