PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; Flyers lead 3-2.
The question now is whether the Flyers can carry that effort with them to Canada as they attempt to close out the Leafs.
Philadelphia looks to earn the first victory by a road team in the series as it heads to Air Canada Centre for Game 6.
The Flyers brought a 2-0 lead to Toronto for Games 3 and 4, and looked to be in full control of the series. But they stumbled home Friday after being outscored 7-2 in losing both contests in front of the Leafs’ raucous fans.
Philadelphia, though, regained control by duplicating the combined score of its two losses Sunday, pounding Toronto 7-2 at the Wachovia Center to push the Leafs to the brink of elimination.
Captain Keith Primeau addressed his teammates in a closed-door meeting before the game, then scored three goals, and Michal Handzus scored twice as the Flyers held on to what appears to be a critical home-ice advantage in the series.
“We were plodding along in a series that we had control of,” Primeau said of the losses in Games 3 and 4. “We had to get back to skating and getting to the net. Tonight, we did that and because of that we got rewarded and got a win.”
Philadelphia, the third seed in the East playoffs, knows at the very least it will return home Thursday for a possible Game 7. The Flyers have outscored the Leafs 12-4 in winning the three games at the Wachovia Center.
If Toronto doesn’t make drastic improvements from Game 5, however, Philadelphia’s trip home will be to regroup before opening the conference finals. The Maple Leafs were terrible defensively and were unable to handle the relentless puck pressure generated by the Flyers, who jumped out to a 3-0 lead and never looked back.
The Toronto defense pairing of Bryan McCabe and Brian Leetch struggled the most, with McCabe’s first-period turnover leading directly to Mark Recchi’s goal at 3:51 to open the scoring. McCabe was a minus-5, while Leetch finished minus-4.
Able to get under the skin of the Flyers in Games 3 and 4 en route to tying the series at home, the Maple Leafs were unable to match the Flyers’ physical play in Game 5. Both teams came out hitting, but Philadelphia seemed to feed off the contact and raise its level of play.
“I don’t know where to start,” said Leafs captain Mats Sundin, also a minus-4. “Before the game, there was no doubt we were mentally and physically prepared.”
The Flyers also had to switch goaltenders during the game, but not because of poor play. Robert Esche departed with what was originally termed an “upper-body injury” by the Flyers, but turned out to be flu symptoms. He left after the first period and was replaced by Sean Burke, but is expected to start Game 6 after coach Ken Hitchcock said Tuesday that Esche “is good to go.”
Defenseman Vladimir Malakhov is questionable, however, after suffering a head injury. He was on the receiving end of a big first-period hit by Toronto’s Darcy Tucker that resulted in a charging penalty.
There’s little doubt a series that saw the physical play elevate during the first two games in Toronto will continue that theme in Game 6. Things got ugly late in Game 5, with Philadelphia enforcer Donald Brashear receiving a misconduct and Toronto tough guy Tie Domi getting ejected in the third period.
The Flyers will look to duplicate the energy level they had at the outset Sunday, having immediately put Toronto on the defensive. They’re sure to be met by a desperate and embarrassed Leafs team that doesn’t plan on getting banged around again, especially in front of its own fans.
“We have to make sure we come back and play much better right from the start,” Belfour said. “Going home is definitely going to help us.”
The Leafs will play the remainder of the series, and likely the rest of the playoffs, without veteran Ken Klee. One of Toronto’s steadiest defensemen in this postseason, Klee will have knee surgery later this week. He will be replaced Tuesday by Karel Pilar, who has yet to appear in these playoffs.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Flyers - Primeau, 5 goals; Alex Zhamnov, 7 assists and 11 points; Brashear, 18 PIM. Maple Leafs - Joe Nieuwendyk, 6 goals; Leetch, 8 assists; Leetch and McCabe, 8 points; Domi, 39 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Flyers - Power play: 21.2 percent (7 for 33). Penalty killing: 88.1 percent (37 for 42). Maple Leafs - Power play: 10.7 percent (6 for 56). Penalty killing: 89.3 percent (50 for 56).
GOALTENDERS: Flyers - Esche (7-3, 1 SO, 2.04 GAA); Burke (0-0, 1.50). Maple Leafs - Belfour (6-6, 3, 2.04); Kidd (0-0, 1.82).