Buffalo, NY – For almost 90 minutes of game play in Game One of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, it would be hard to argue that Flyers goaltender Robert Esche was the not best player on the ice.
That being said, the Flyers could not quite take advantage of his performance as Daniel Briere
's overtime score gave the Buffalo Sabres the victory in the opening game of the series. Fortunately for Philadelphia, Esche's spectacular performance will not be his last if it's up to him.
"I have to be honest, I've felt really good about my game for awhile now," said Esche. "Again, I still think that there's a lot more I can contribute and I want to keep on growing that way. I've really felt good about my game, especially the last 10 games or so.
"I've always felt really in the zone or focused and get tunnel vision this time of year. I hope that I continue to do that the rest of my career."
Esche made 55 saves in keeping the Flyers in the game early and allowing them to erase a two-goal deficit and force the overtime where anything can happen. Both Philadelphia and Buffalo had some great chances to end the game before the Briere goal.
"You need your goalie to win on the road, especially when you're playing against good teams, and we got that type of performance," said Ken Hitchcock. "But we didn't execute offensively for him. Still, in saying that, we had as many or more chances than they did in overtime."
Esche had an up-and-down regular season before finding his game during the stretch run where he started seven of the Flyers' final nine games. A groin injury in December forced him out for more than a month.
His teammates and coaches describe him as one of the most competitive guys you will find, and that competitiveness may have been part of his early struggles.
"I don't know whether it's the make-up of me or whatever, but you always think that you can go through [injuries] and do things. In [the 2004 playoffs] I had a real bad hip and things worked out. That's what I kind of did at the beginning of this season before obviously it got to the point where I had to take time off."
Now, Esche is back and apparently even healthier than he was two years ago when the Flyers came within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals. Hopefully for Philadelphia, it can take advantage of his play as the playoffs progress.Umberger's Status Updated
R.J. Umberger, who had to be helped off of the ice following a crushing hit by Buffalo's Brian Campbell, could play on Monday according to Hitchcock.
"His neck is a little bit stiff right now but other than that he feels pretty good," said Hitchcock on Sunday afternoon. "We'll know certainly [Monday] morning, possibly even later [Sunday], whether he is going to play or not.
"If his neck responds to the treatment like we think it will then he'll be available for us tomorrow. He has stiffness in his neck which is muscular so we're just waiting to see how that turns out."Forsberg Impressive After Rough Start
Although the opening minutes were not quite how Peter Forsberg envisioned them, he and his linemates Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble, were dominant for most of Game One.
"It didn't start out as good as I wanted. I missed an open net, took a penalty and then the giveaway [that led to a Buffalo goal]. After that, I thought our line worked itself back into the game," said Forsberg. "I haven't played a lot of games lately, so hopefully it gets better and better."
Hitchcock was impressed with his top line, which tied the game late on Gagne's power play goal.
"[Forsberg has] got a target on his back and he was excellent. He did things down low with the puck that there's no player in the world that can do. That line created a number of scoring chances. If you look at the third period, that line created eight chances by themselves. They gave us a chance."
One improvement that Hitchcock will stress to his team is to stay out of the penalty box. The Flyers killed off all nine Buffalo power plays, but can't count on doing that every game.
"For our team to win, we need a lot more five-on-five play," said Hitchcock. "They have an excellent power play, and our penalty killers did a tremendous job yesterday, but we can't rely on our penalty killers to keep that team off of the score sheet power play wise. We're going to have to take fewer penalties so we can continue to build momentum in the game."