No hitch in his plan

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:52 PM ET


 Ken Hitchcock celebrated Ed Belfour's birthday yesterday by questioning just how many candles belonged on The Eagle's cake.

 "I heard Belfour turned 39," the Philadelphia Flyers coach said. "I think he's lying ... I think he's closer to Johnny Bower's age. I really believe he was born in the 1950s."

 Let the gamesmanship begin.

 Was Hitchcock's good-natured ribbing just a way of getting inside Belfour's head? Did he really mean it when he said the Flyers prepare for the Eagle "just like any other goalie?"

 You have to be careful before buying into Hitchcock's schtick. This is one of the shrewdest hockey minds in the game, a guy who will use whatever advantage he can get to give his team an edge.

 Heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-final between the Leafs and Flyers tonight at the Wachovia Center, no one knows the importance of solving Belfour and Joe Nieuwendyk -- the two players who led Toronto past the Ottawa Senators in the first round -- more than Hitchcock.

 Five years ago, Hitchcock's Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup, thanks in part to the heroics of Belfour and Nieuwendyk, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the MVP of the playoffs.

 Hitchcock won't admit it, but he more than any other bench boss in the league seems to have figured out the key to getting his former goalie off his game.

 A year ago today, the Flyers pumped six pucks by Belfour en route to eliminating the Leafs by a 6-1 score in Game 7 of their first-round series.

 They beat him another 16 times in four games this season and, at times, made him look bad in the process.

 IN YOUR FACE

 The Flyers recipe for success seems to stem from getting bodies in the Eagle's face, a scenario Belfour will have to deal with much more than he did against a soft Senators side.

 "That's where we play no matter who the opponent is," said forward Keith Primeau, who plans to park his 6-foot-4 frame on Belfour's doorstep whenever possible. "Eddie's a competitive guy, so you must try to distract him.

 "It won't be hard to work up a hate in this series."

 Primeau could very well be assigned to shadow Nieuwendyk, given Hitchcock's concerns about containing the slick Leaf centre.

 In other words, one Whitby boy checking another.

 "Joe's always been a good player when the game is high value," Hitchcock said. "Look at his record in important games. You had better be ready for him because if you are not, he can steal games for you. We've seen it before."

 Hitchcock watched Belfour and Nieuwendyk sip out of the Stanley Cup back in 1999.

 He will do everything in his power to see it doesn't happen again.


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