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GAME: Philadelphia Flyers (45-26-11) at Buffalo Sabres (52-24-6).

PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference First Round; Game 1.

TIME: Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT.

Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock has put his faith in goaltender Robert Esche for the playoffs.

The netminder now has the task of backstopping the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup title since 1975 as they open their Eastern Conference first round series against the Buffalo Sabres.

The lack of a star goaltender has long been a point of contention in Philadelphia, which is in the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season but has not won a Stanley Cup since the days of Rick MacLeish, Bobby Clarke - now the Flyers general manager - and the "Broad Street Bullies."

The Flyers have not been to the Stanley Cup Finals since being swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1997, but Hitchcock is hoping Esche will prove the naysayers wrong in a city starved for any professional sports title.

"We have two really good goaltenders," Hitchcock said Wednesday in announcing his decision. "We wanted to see how Robert's season unfolded once he got healthy. There were a lot of ebbs and flows since January. Our feeling was we wanted to start with the experienced player and go from there."

Waiting in the wings should Esche falter is Antero Niittymaki, who helped Finland to the silver medal in the Olympics and started for the Calder Cup-winning Philadelphia Phantoms in the AHL last season.

Esche, who helped the Flyers reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2004, appears more than ready to have the weight of the city on his shoulders.

"Pressure isn't a bad word. It's a great word," Esche said. "It gives you tunnel vision and let's you focus on the task at hand."

Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble form an imposing first line for the Flyers. Despite missing 22 games due to injury, Forsberg finished second on the team with 75 points and helped Gagne and Knuble score career highs in goals with 47 and 34, respectively.

The Sabres, back in the playoffs for the first time since 2001, feature a balanced offense in which nine players scored at least 18 goals. They are led by 30-goal scorer Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and right wing Maxim Afinogenov, who had a team-high 51 assists.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was able to transition from a defense-first mentality to let his young, fast players be aggressive offensively. He became the 16th coach in NHL history to reach 300 wins and felt vindicated in being retained by owner B. Thomas Golisano, who bought the team in March 2003.

"I think in the end, the right owner got the team," Ruff said with a wink. "Somewhere in there, you've got to call it lucky."

Goaltender Ryan Miller will be making his playoff debut, and backup Martin Biron also has no postseason experience. Only four players - Afinogenov, J.P. Dumont, Dmitri Kalinin and Jay McKee - have playoff experience with the Sabres.

Buffalo closed its season on a five-game winning streak and expects Jochen Hecht to be available. The two-way center missed 16 of the final 17 games with a knee injury.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Flyers - 101 points; 5th seed. Sabres - 110 points; 4th seed.

REGULAR SEASON TEAM LEADERS: Flyers - Gagne, 47 goals and 79 points; Forsberg, 56 assists; Donald Brashear, 166 PIM. Sabres - Drury, 30 goals; Afinogenov, 51 assists and 73 points; Andrew Peters, 100 PIM.

REGULAR SEASON SPECIAL TEAMS: Flyers - Power play: 16.0 percent (80 for 444), 16th. Penalty killing: 79.2 percent (377 for 476), 27th. Sabres - Power play: 21.2 percent (101 for 477), 3rd. Penalty killing: 86.6 percent (380 for 439), 2nd.

GOALTENDERS: Flyers - Esche (22-11-5, 1 SO, 2.97 GAA); Niittymaki (23-15-6, 2, 2.97). Sabres - Miller (30-14-3, 1, 2.60); Biron (21-8-3, 1, 2.89)

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Sabres, 3-1. The Sabres won the first three games between the teams before the Flyers posted a 4-2 win April 7 at Buffalo. Knuble scored goals in all four games, Gagne tallied in the last three games between the teams and Forsberg had one assist in two games. Jochen Hecht had two goals and three assists for the Sabres, while Miller stopped 84 of 92 shots.

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