Voorhees, NJ – Based on the number of games that he played down the stretch, it was fairly obvious that Flyers Head Coach Ken Hitchcock was going to name Robert Esche as the Flyers' starting goaltender for the 2006 NHL Playoffs which begin on Saturday in Buffalo.
What also helped was Esche's performance during the final stretch of the regular season.
"I really wanted to see if Robert, who has missed a year [due to the NHL lockout], could get his game in order. This wasn't a competition between two goalies. This was watching a veteran goalie to see if he could get his game in order, and he did," said Hitchcock on Wednesday afternoon. "He found his game and personality and accepted the responsibility with the position so we're going to go with him."
Looking at the numbers, there was very little difference between Esche and rookie Antero Niittymaki. Following Esche's impressive 31-save performance in a 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Tuesday, both goaltenders finished with a 2.97 goals against average. Esche's .897 save percentage was just barely better than Niittymaki's .895. Esche started seven of the team's final nine games.
Of course, Esche's performance in the 2004 playoffs was an important part of the equation as the Flyers came to within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals.
"We've seen Robert do it before and we're hoping that he does it again," said Hitchcock.
Esche, who did not have much to say to the media during 2004 Playoffs, held a conference call on Wednesday afternoon to discuss Hitchcock's decision.
"I put a stretch of some good games together, and I feel good right now," he said. "Whenever stuff like this comes around, you definitely feel the pressure of the city, of teammates and of the organization to make sure you're playing to the best of your ability. Pressure isn't a bad word; it's a great word. It gives you tunnel vision and it really lets you focus on the task at hand.
"I felt like my game has been pretty solid since I got back from [a groin] injury. After the Olympics, it went up a level. In the last couple weeks, it went up a level again. The good thing for me is that I still feel like I have more to offer. As an athlete, you're always trying to do that."
Esche also spoke of his silence during the 2004 playoff run.
"It was really my first experience with media. I took something to heart that I probably shouldn't have prior to the playoffs. It was stupid. You can't worry about that kind of stuff. I've been dealing with the media a lot through the lockout, being the player rep, and I know a lot of them and have gotten to like a lot of them. I realize they have a job to do. I'd never be that guy I was in '04 again."Rookies to Play Key Role
Just as they have been all season long, the Flyers' rookies will be counted on to perform in the playoffs. If they contribute as much as they did during their first professional seasons, it would be a huge offensive boost for the club.
"I feel like we're lucky. These guys all played in the number one competition last year, the [AHL] playoffs. They played in it and they won it," said Hitchcock. "
"I don't believe it's going to take them very long to get used to the competition. It will be at another level, but we'll have them ready for that. It's a lot different of a situation if you are bringing in players who have not played in these types of competitions before, but they already know what it's like."
Among the current Flyers that won the Calder Cup with the Phantoms that are playing a key role in the team now include Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger and Freddy Meyer. With the NHL not playing last season, the intensity of the AHL playoffs was as good of an experience as they could have gone through.
"I got a chance to play in the American [Hockey] League Playoffs so I got a little sniff of it, but I'm looking forward to a great challenge for myself and all of the young guys here," said Carter. "We want to show we can play at this next level."
Both Carter and Richards were around for the 2004 playoff run. Although they weren't playing, and weren't even signed by the club yet, they got to see what the playoffs are like first hand.
"I wasn't playing but I was hanging around the dressing room, so I've kind of been a part of it a little bit," said Richards.