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ECF Preview? East’s Best, Flyers and Lightning Duke it Out in Tampa

“Playoff atmosphere”…

“Statement game”…

Two overused hockey clichés, yes, but each applied to last night’s tilt between the Eastern Conference’s top two clubs, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was, without a doubt, a playoff-type atmosphere at the St. Pete Times Forum, in a back-and-forth, physical affair that resulted in the virtual tie of a shootout victory for Philadelphia.

And the statement that was made in Philly’s 4-3 win is that both of these clubs are for real, each a legitimate contender when the postseason hits, and that a playoff series between the two would be intensity at its best.

No sense going on and on here about how a game like that should never be decided in shootout fashion (it shouldn’t) but thankfully, as Lightning head coach Guy Boucher pointed out, “In the playoffs, there won’t be any shootouts.”

And what we saw undoubtedly on Tuesday night were two teams primed for playoff hockey.

James van Riemsdyk led the way with an all-around effort for the Flyers, fighting Lightning defenseman Randy Jones after a hip check on teammate Claude Giroux, opening the scoring in the first period with his 13th goal and later completing the fabled Gordie Howe hat trick with an assist on Scott Hartnell’s second period marker.

Darroll Powe gave Philadelphia a 3-1 lead, converting on a penalty shot against Dwayne Roloson at 8:48 of the middle frame.

But the Bolts clawed back on second period goals from Vincent Lecavalier and winger Teddy Purcell. For Lecavalier, the goal marked his fourth straight game with at least one tally, the first time he’s put together a run like that since late January-early February, 2007. The Lightning captain has been terrific since the All-Star break with five goals and seven points, appearing driven, focused and, at times, dominant.

The two teams traded scoring chances throughout the third period and overtime but were never able to break the 3-3 deadlock and, though Adam Hall nearly gave Tampa Bay the extra point when his shootout attempt rang off the goalpost, it was Flyer defenseman Kimmo Timonen’s goal that wrapped things up for Philadelphia.

With his club having taken seven out of a possible eight points in the regular season series against the Flyers, however, Boucher has to feel good about Tampa Bay’s chances, should a hypothetical playoff showdown (only possible in the Eastern Conference Final, if the current standings hold true) between these teams become reality. Then again, part of the swagger for the Bolts this year stems from the fact that they feel good about themselves, no matter the opponent.

“We feel like we can play with anybody,” Boucher asserted and his team has proven as much this year with wins over nearly all of the league’s top teams – Vancouver, Boston, Pittsburgh, three against the Flyers and on and on.

Another big test looms Thursday with Detroit, who Boucher called “The standard for our league in the past 12 to 15 years”, in town to face the Lightning.

With the point earned by taking Tuesday night’s game past regulation, the Lightning rest at 34-17-6 for 74 points and a six-point lead over the Washington Capitals in the Southeast Division. Philadelphia’s lead over Tampa Bay in the East is increased to five with an identical gap between the Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, currently second in the Atlantic Division.

As the Eastern Conference playoff picture becomes more clear, teams will look to fortify their ranks and the Flyers already have, adding winger Kris Versteeg from Toronto on Monday. Philadelphia now boasts eight forwards on pace for 20 or more goals, though the future of Nikolay Zherdev (a healthy scratch Tuesday in Tampa) is unclear with Versteeg’s arrival. The Boston Bruins bolstered their forward depth in acquiring Chris Kelly from Ottawa last night and are actively seeking an upgrade on defense as well. Injury-ravaged Pittsburgh will surely seek forward help without the services of star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

But with 12 days to go between now and this year’s trade deadline, of the top four clubs in the East, the Lightning might be the most difficult to forecast, in terms of what, if anything, they might add.

A significant abdominal injury to Ryan Malone opens up a hole at forward that could be addressed and the team, like most playoff-bound contenders, could use some added depth, specifically on defense. But general manager Steve Yzerman remains adamant about not wanting to flip higher-end draft picks for playoff rentals. With the market setting itself early with the Versteeg trade, Ottawa unloading parts by the day and more and more teams looking to get a jump on the deadline, Yzerman may just decide to do very little or nothing at all.

If inaction is the ultimate course, so be it. Yzerman’s club, under Boucher, has proven to be more than capable of playing with anyone, despite major obstacles this season.

At this point, with so much of the schedule already in the rear view, the road ahead leads directly to the playoffs for Tampa Bay for the first time since 2006-07 and, who knows, maybe another meeting with Philadelphia.

As the standings dictate and some deeper analysis confirms, these two are the Eastern Conference’s best.

With last night as a bit of a preview, wouldn’t that be something?

JJ on Twitter
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Filed in: NHL Teams, Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL Talk, NHL Playoff Talk, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: claude+giroux, dwayne+roloson, guy+boucher, james+van+riemsdyk, kimmo+timonen, scott+hartnell, teddy+purcell, vincent+lecavalier


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About Kukla's Korner Hockey

Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

Email Paul anytime at pk@kuklaskorner.com


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