Size matters down the middle

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:39 PM ET


 There is nothing on Robert Esche's resume to indicate he can pull this off.

 There is no background of playoff success. There are no games stolen, no indication at any level that he can be the kind of goalie who makes a difference at this time of year.

 And maybe that, with so much injury chaos and lineup doubt surrounding the Maple Leafs, is what this team needs to grasp on to. Maybe that is as positive as you can be as the Leafs, again undermanned, enter Game 2 in Philadelphia tonight.

 It is easy, from the outside, to play 'What if?' with this hockey team.

 What if Joe Nieuwendyk wasn't always day to day?

 What if Mats Sundin was as he usually is during the season, healthy as the horse he happens to be?

 What if Owen Nolan, so strong, powerful and quick, wasn't again injured?

 How different would it all look entering Game 2? How much less would the margin of error be for the Leafs?

 The difficulty in that is that the mismatches seem all too apparent now. The largest differential is at the so-important centre position, where even if Sundin plays under less than ideal conditions, how effective will he be?

 And with Nieuwendyk out, is that just taking one injured body and replacing it with another?

 Here is the one matchup the Leafs cannot win. The Flyers have Keith Primeau, Michal Handzus and Alexei Zhamnov taking the majority of their faceoffs and spending the majority of their time in front of the Maple Leafs net.

 Zhamnov is large, Handzus is larger, Primeau is a giant.

 Opposing them is Sundin, if he plays; Ron Francis who is 41 years old, slow and was not acquired to be a top two centreman; Robert Reichel, who is six inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than almost anyone he will play against; and Clarke Wilm, a rather game minor-league addition who did all that could be expected.

 That kind of match may have worked against Ottawa, where the centres were named Bonk and White and Fisher and Spezza -- none of them overwhelming in size.

 This is the dilemma for Pat Quinn and his coaching staff. How do you physically match up with the Flyers when the differences are so obvious.

 This is where you go back to Game 1 and conclude, though, that it's more than simply being mismatched. Some of the best Flyers and some of the most significant players that night came not from the giants, but from those who played like them.

 On one goal, Mark Recchi, who is all of 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, pushed aside a less than able Nieuwendyk.

 On another goal, Tony Amonte, who is six feet tall and 200 pounds, physically out-battled Tomas Kaberle, who is at least the same weight and an inch taller.

 On the third Flyers goal, Simon Gagne, who is shorter and lighter than Kaberle, won the battle for a loose puck ending with his score.

 If the Leafs can't control the smaller of the Flyer players, how can they hope to get a handle on John LeClair and the larger Flyers wingers?

 This is where Nik Antropov has to make the kind of playoff impact that has been expected for years and has rarely materialized. This is where Alexei Ponikarovsky has to pay back his coach for the faith he has shown in him. This is where Alex Mogilny and Gary Roberts have to supply the offence that has been missing most of the playoffs.

 Is it too much to ask?

 Probably.

 But this team has managed the unlikely before. Their opponent still has an unproven goalie. That has to be worth something for the Leafs.

 There has to be something to believe in now.


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