VOORHEES, N.J. (AP)—Alexei Zhamnov used to sit home this time of year, watch the NHL playoffs and wish his team was still playing.
Zhamnov isn’t dreaming about making a run for the Stanley Cup anymore. His performance this postseason is a major reason why the Philadelphia Flyers are in position to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Flyers lead the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-0 in their best-of-seven, second-round series. Game 3 is Wednesday night in Toronto.
“To have an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup has brought all the life back into him,” Flyers forward Tony Amonte said of Zhamnov.
So far, Zhamnov has been Philadelphia’s best offensive player in the playoffs, with four goals and six assists in seven games. He scored the game-winning goal in Sunday night’s 2-1 victory, giving the Flyers a lead they’ve never surrendered. Philadelphia is 16-0 when winning the first two games in a best-of-seven series.
“He’s a world-class player,” Flyers forward Mark Recchi said of Zhamnov. “He makes people around him better. He’s a real composed player. He’s a lot of fun to be around and he loves coming to the rink.”
Zhamnov came to Philadelphia in a trade with Chicago in February, helping fill the void at center created by injuries to All-Stars Jeremy Roenick and Keith Primeau. Zhamnov made an immediate impact, sparking Philadelphia’s offense and stabilizing the top line. The Flyers went on to win the Atlantic Division and beat New Jersey in five games in the first round.
“You hear a lot of guys say they want to play on a winning team. Alexei’s comment was he wanted to make the team better,” Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. “With Primeau and Roenick out, he had no choice. He had to play 20 minutes a game and he did make us better.”
Zhamnov had five goals and 13 assists in 20 games with the Flyers in the regular season. In the playoffs, Zhamnov’s line, which includes Amonte and Roenick, has eight goals and 15 assists in seven games.
“No matter who plays with him, he’s easy to play with,” said Amonte, who played with Zhamnov in Chicago. “He opens up the ice, always makes great passes and never gets caught out of position on defense.”
In his 11 previous seasons, Zhamnov had been to the playoffs only three times, including just once (2001-02) in seven full years with the Blackhawks. No wonder he was thrilled to leave last-place Chicago and come to Philadelphia.
“It doesn’t matter to me how many points I have,” Zhamnov said. “The most important thing is we have to win 16 games to win the Stanley Cup.”
For now, the Leafs stand in the way for Zhamnov and Philadelphia.
“We have the next game on home ice. If we win this game, we’re right back in the series,” Toronto captain Mats Sundin said.
Flyers goaltender Robert Esche is the reason the Leafs didn’t even the series with a win in Game 2. Esche was spectacular, finishing with 26 saves, including several on close shots in the final minutes. He kept the Flyers in the game with 10 saves in the second period when Toronto outshot Philadelphia 11-1.
“We had every opportunity to win that game,” Leafs center Ron Francis said. “We felt we played well enough to win. Hopefully, we’ll feel more comfortable in our building and get a few past him.”
The Flyers again could be without defenseman Kim Johnsson, who missed the first two games with a broken bone in his hand.