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New Jersey Devils 2, Philadelphia Flyers 3 FINAL @NHLdotcom

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Robert Esche passed his first playoff test, outplaying, of all goaltenders, Martin Brodeur.

Esche made 37 saves in his first postseason start, helping the Philadelphia Flyers beat defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey 3-2 in Game 1 of their first-round series Thursday night.

``He showed people he can play goal in the playoffs,'' Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. ``He's a really competitive guy who wants the ball. We're going to ride it out with him.''

Simon Gagne, Jeremy Roenick and Keith Primeau scored for the Flyers, who finished one point ahead of the Devils to win the Atlantic Division and earn home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

Patrik Elias and Jan Hrdina scored New Jersey's goals.

Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Saturday in Philadelphia.

``I'm certainly not disappointed in the way we played,'' Devils coach Pat Burns said. ``I'm satisfied. I thought we pressured pretty well. The chances we got proved that.''

Brodeur, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, didn't have one of his usual dominant playoff performances, allowing three goals on 26 shots. But the Devils nearly bailed him out by scoring twice in a 35-second span less than a minute after Philadelphia took a 3-0 lead.

Esche and the stingy Flyers defense then shut New Jersey down the final 15:32.

``I felt fine. I felt great, actually,'' Esche said. ``I knew what I had to do, that was stop the puck.''

Playing without defenseman Scott Stevens, still battling post-concussion syndrome, New Jersey's defense couldn't stop the Flyers' hard-checking forwards. The Devils couldn't solve Esche early on, either.

Esche, who struggled down the stretch and wasn't named Philadelphia's starting goalie until Monday, made several outstanding saves late in the first while the Devils were on a power play. He made a chest save on a point-blank shot by Jamie Langenbrunner and stopped a backhander by John Madden.

Esche stoned Turner Stevenson on a power play early in the second, kicking away a shot while sprawled on the ice.

``Esche was awesome,'' Roenick said. ``He made some huge saves. They came at him pretty good.''

Primeau's goal gave the Flyers what appeared to be a comfortable 3-0 lead 3:31 into the third. He broke in on Brodeur, went around defenseman Brian Rafalski and slid a shot between Brodeur's legs.

But the Devils scored twice within 57 seconds of Primeau's goal to cut it to 3-2. Elias scored into an open net off a rebound of a shot by Brian Gionta for the Devils' first goal. Hrdina then slipped a shot past a confused Esche during a scramble in front.

Gagne gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead midway through the first period when he backhanded a shot past Brodeur. Brodeur stopped Sami Kapanen's slap shot from the side of the left circle, but couldn't control the rebound, allowing Gagne to get there first.

Roenick's power-play goal 3:55 into the second made it 2-0. Roenick began the play with a pass out to the blue line to Kim Johnsson, who sent a crisp pass down low to Alexei Zhamnov. Roenick eluded a check along the boards, skated toward the net, and one-timed a pass from Zhamnov between Brodeur's legs.

``The Flyers played the same way Hitch had them playing all year, not letting anyone getting caught up ice,'' Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer said. ``There's not a lot of odd-man rushes.''

Hitchcock said early in the season that his team had a psychological disadvantage against New Jersey. But after starting the season series 0-2-1, Philadelphia won the final three regular-season games against the Devils.

``We can't take it as more than we won the first game,'' Primeau said.

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