VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) _ Robert Esche stood in the hallway at the Philadelphia
Flyers' practice facility, laughing and joking with a former teammate.
Playoff pressure? Esche certainly hasn't felt any in his first postseason
series as a starting goaltender.
Esche's stellar performance against the New Jersey Devils is a major reason
why the Flyers are on the verge of eliminating the defending Stanley Cup
champions in the first round.
``Eschie stepped up at a critical time, and we responded,'' Flyers coach Ken
Hitchcock said Thursday.
Esche recorded his first playoff shutout with a spectacular 35-save
performance to lead the Flyers to a 3-0 victory Wednesday night. That gave
Philadelphia a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series, and it hosts
Game 5 on Saturday.
Though the Atlantic Division champion Flyers came into the series as slight
favorites, they were at a significant disadvantage in the goalie matchup: Esche
vs. Martin Brodeur. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has led the Devils to
three NHL titles since 1995.
But the 26-year-old Esche has outplayed Brodeur, allowing eight goals on 123
shots to put Philadelphia one victory away from advancing to the second round
for the second straight year.
``Everybody thinks Esche is stepping up, but that's the way he plays,''
Flyers captain Keith Primeau said. ``We have total confidence in him in the
The unflappable Esche has been good-natured with reporters in his two
seasons in Philadelphia. He won the Yanick Dupre Class Guy Memorial Award last
year as the Flyers player who ``best illustrates character, dignity and respect
for the sport, both on and off the ice.''
But angered by criticism he received during his late-season struggles, Esche
stopped doing interviews on off days once the playoffs began. He originally
didn't want to speak after games, either but changed his mind.
While Esche has done his talking on the ice, his teammates and opponents
have plenty of praise for him.
``You have to give credit where credit is due. He is the reason they are up
3-1,'' Devils center Scott Gomez said.
Esche, who came to the Flyers in a trade with Phoenix in June 2002, was
21-11-7 with three shutouts, a 2.04 goals-against average and a .915 save
percentage in 40 games this season. He missed 11 games with a knee injury in
February, and shared the goaltending duties early in the season with Jeff
Hackett, who has since retired because of vertigo.
From March 11 to the end of the regular season, Esche was 2-4-2 and his GAA
rose from 1.92 and his save percentage dropped from .919. He allowed at least
five goals on long shots, putting his starting spot in jeopardy.
But Hitchcock gave Esche the nod over veteran Sean Burke based on his
overall performance during the season. Esche hasn't disappointed, playing with
determination and focus.
He made 37 saves, including several key stops late, in Philadelphia's 3-2
victory in Game 1. He had 24 saves in another 3-2 victory in Game 2.
``We're all over him, but can't seem to get one by him,'' Devils forward
John Madden said.
The Flyers are careful not to look past the Devils, who came back from a 3-1
deficit to beat Philadelphia in the 2000 Eastern Conference finals. But only
four players _ Primeau, Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Simon Gagne _ remain from
that Flyers team. And these Devils don't have perennial All-Star defenseman
Scott Stevens, out with post-concussion syndrome.
``It's a different team, a different year,'' Primeau said. ``They're not
going away quietly. We know that.''