Flyers a 'very hardened group' now

VOORHEES, N.J. -- The Philadelphia Flyers aren't intimidated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Flyers were 0-4 against Tampa this season. Now they get another chance against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.

"I know how good Tampa is and I know what their record is against us, but we are a group that's gone through a lot and we're not going to get pushed out easily by anybody," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said Wednesday.

Philadelphia advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 2000 by defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games. Game 1 against the Lightning is Saturday in Tampa.

The Lightning haven't played since Thursday after sweeping Montreal in the second round. Tampa beat the New York Islanders in five games in the opening round of the playoffs.

While the Lightning are rested, the Flyers are coming off a grueling, physical series against Toronto. They also had a difficult series in the first round against New Jersey, winning in five games.

"We are a very hardened group right now," Hitchcock said. "We are a group that's gone through two very difficult series of really well-played, intense hockey. We've played better as the series moved on. To me, that's a sign that's a hardened group. We are a playoff-ready group right now."

Tampa outscored the Flyers 18-8 in their four meetings this season, but the teams haven't played since Feb. 17. Since then, Philadelphia acquired center Alexei Zhamnov and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov, key contributors in the postseason.

Flyers goaltender Robert Esche didn't fare well in his two starts against the Lightning, getting yanked after allowing three goals in a 6-1 loss on Jan. 3 and injuring his knee in a loss on Feb. 2.

But Esche has been outstanding in his first postseason as a starter. He is 8-3 with a 2.02 goals-against average, a .931 save-percentage and one shutout. Esche outplayed Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour, two goalies who have won Stanley Cups.

"He's been so dominant in the playoffs," Flyers forward Jeremy Roenick said of Esche. "He continues to defy anyone who thinks he is not playoff savvy."

Meanwhile, Tampa goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has been stellar in the playoffs, going 8-1 with a 0.99 goals-against average, a .964 save-percentage and four shutouts.

The teams have met once in the playoffs, with the Flyers winning a first-round series in six games in 1996. This is Philadelphia's 14th trip to the conference finals but its first since wasting a 3-1 lead against the Devils four years ago. The Flyers are seeking their eighth trip to the Stanley Cup finals, their first since getting swept by Detroit in 1997. Philadelphia hasn't won a Cup since 1975.

"They play with an edge. They are a very big team. They play a pressure offensive game and take risks and have gotten rewards because of it," Hitchcock said of the Lightning. "They are very well-coached, high-energy, high-octane team. We are going to have to match that energy level on the ice."