- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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PHILADELPHIA -- Most goaltenders would be in a good mood after posting their first playoff win.
Not Robert Esche.
The usually affable Philadelphia Flyers goaltender, who was the difference in the Flyers' 3-2 Game 1 over the New Jersey Devils, stopping 37 of 39 shots, was in a grim mood after the game. So much so, he wasn't going to speak to the media. Apparently, Esche has been a bit bothered by some of the talk about him in local media in recent days.
After some arm-twisting by the club and league's media relations staff -- and a brief chat with Flyers captain Keith Primeau -- the bearded goalie finally came out to face the media mob.
"I knew what I had to do," said a stone-faced Esche, who carried 30 minutes of playoff experience into Thursday night's tilt. "I had to stop the puck and that was simple and kind of where I left it at."
Coming into the series, the Devils rated a huge advantage in the crease with three-time Stanley Cup winner Martin Brodeur. The Flyers, at least in the local press, seemed to be uncertain about whether Esche or veteran Sean Burke would get the call to open the series. After the win, however, Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said it was never an issue to him.
"I knew who I was going to start in the playoffs four months ago," Hitchcock said, referring to Esche, who struggled a bit down the stretch, going 1-4-1 in his last six starts. "I didn't make it public because I wanted to keep him in the moment."
Esche was certainly in the moment in Game 1. He was especially sharp in the first two periods when the Devils produced numerous scoring chances with 12 shots on their three power-play chances.
Behind Esche's stellar goaltending, the Flyers built a 2-0 lead on goals by Simon Gagne (taking advantage of a positioning miscue by rookie Devils defenseman Paul Martin) and Jeremy Roenick, who scored on the power play. At the 3:31 mark of the third period, Primeau made it 3-0 when he circled around Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski on the off-wing and stuffed a forehand past Brodeur from in tight.
But, 22 seconds later, the Devils finally solved Esche when Patrik Elias buried a long rebound from inside the left wing circle.
At that point, the Philly crowd was supportive, offering a loud ovation for Esche.
Then, 35 seconds later, the defending champs struck again. This time, it was Jan Hrdina, who was credited with the goal off a scramble in front.
A bit stunned by the sudden turn of events, the crowd turned silent, perhaps thinking of past goaltending collapses in Philly.
For his part, Hitchcock wasn't blaming the guy in the crease.
"We fell asleep for 35 seconds and it was in our net," Hitchcock said. "But, tonight, Esche was the guy we've seen all year. He's showing people he can play goal in the playoffs."
Brodeur, who is a pretty good judge of goaltenders, felt Esche turned in a strong game.
"It was his night," said Brodeur, who stopped 23 of 26 shots. "He was down in his butterfly and pucks were hitting him."
After the Devils cut the lead to one, the Flyers dug in to close out the game. In the final 15:32, they allowed just four shots on goal. The most dangerous chance came with a little more than three minutes left in regulation time when Devils right winger Sergei Brylin found himself alone with the puck in the high slot. Brylin stretched for the loose puck and whipped a wrist shot toward the net. As hulking Devs forward Turner Stevenson moved to the net for a rebound, Esche casually gloved the shot and held on for a faceoff.
The Devils didn't get another good chance.
"I was trying to get the puck up a little higher," Brylin said. "He goes down pretty quick, so I wanted to get the puck up over his glove. I just didn't get it where I wanted to."
Esche wasn't distracted by Stevenson as he came up with the kind of timely save the Flyers will need if they're to advance past the Devils.
"I had a good look at it," Esche said. "I think it was in my glove before Stevenson got too close to the net."
The Devils hope to put more pressure on Esche in Game 2, and feel they didn't do enough to get to loose pucks around the net.
"He gives up a lot of rebounds, both of the goals we scored were rebounds," Brylin said. "We had some good chances, but we couldn't finish."
Stevenson agreed: "He was square to the puck and he has played very well against us the last two or three times. I thought we had chances around the net, but we didn't convert."
They didn't convert because of Esche, who'll have to be as sharp on Saturday night.
"In this business, it's our job to stick by a guy not only when things are going good, but when things are going not-so-good," Hitchcock said. "[Esche] was very good tonight, he should feel good about himself."
He should. But, you'd never know it by seeing him after Game 1.
Hitchcock and Devils coach Pat Burns will be looking for matchups throughout the series. Hitchcock matched his checking line of Primeau, Sami Kapanen and Gagne against the Devils top scoring line of Scott Gomez, Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta. On the flip side, Burns sought to get his checking trio of John Madden, Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin against the Flyers line of Michal Handzus, Mark Recchi and John LeClair.
Roenick, who played right wing on a line with center Alexei Zhamnov and Tony Amonte, opted to take off his protective facemask for the postseason. "It's playoff hockey," Roenick said. Devils defensemen Colin White and Sean Brown took turns testing Roenick's jaw, which was broken when he was hit in the face with a shot by Rangers defenseman Boris Mironov on Feb. 12. Roenick missed 19 games before returning to action. "With the mask, sometimes I found myself looking down for the puck," Roenick added. "Against the Devils, who like to step up into the play, if you start looking down you're going to get killed."
The Devils had a good night in the faceoff circle, winning 58 percent of their draws. Gomez was particularly sharp, winning 15 of 20 faceoffs, most against Primeau.
Including the regular season, the Flyers bring a four-game winning streak against the Devils into Game 2.
After enduring skepticism of his abilities, Flyers goalie Robert Esche made his critics eat their words in Game 1.