Esche gets nod in finale, but playoffs still up for grabs

Updated: April 17, 2006, 6:17 PM ET
Associated Press

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Robert Esche will be the starting goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers with first place at stake on Tuesday night.

Robert Esche

Does that mean Esche will start Game 1 of the playoffs later this week?

"I'll let you know after tomorrow," coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday.

So much for defusing a goaltender controversy.

Esche was pulled for Antero Niittymaki after allowing three goals in Sunday's 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. He didn't play in Philadelphia's 4-1 win over the New York Rangers on Saturday because of the flu.

"I felt really weak, but there's no excuses," said Esche, who stopped just nine of New Jersey's 12 shots.

Esche wasn't happy about coming out of the game Sunday and yelled at his teammates on the bench. He made it clear Monday that he wasn't angry at the team's play, but was only trying to encourage them.

"I just wanted to fire them up and it worked for about 10 minutes," Esche said.

Since Niittymaki started three straight games last month, Esche has started six of the last eight. He's 21-11-5 with a 3.02 goals-against average. Niittymaki is 23-15-6 with a 2.97 goals-against average. Both goalies have an .895 save percentage.

Esche was outstanding during the playoffs two years ago, leading the Flyers to within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup finals. Overall, he's 11-7 with a 2.31 goals-against average in 19 postseason games.

Niittymaki helped the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms win the Calder Cup last season, and was the tournament MVP of the Olympics after he led Finland to the silver medal two months ago.

Niittymaki started 17 straight games when Esche went down with a groin injury in mid-December. He helped the Flyers go 8-2-1 during an 11-game road trip.

"Hitch will tell you that it's not a goaltender controversy, it's a competition. We have two good goalies," said former captain Keith Primeau, who continues to practice with the team, though it's unlikely he'll play this season because of post-concussion symptoms.

The Flyers always seem to have goaltender questions this time of year. While the Devils have relied on Martin Brodeur each season since 1994, Philadelphia has used Ron Hextall, Garth Snow, Sean Burke, Brian Boucher, John Vanbiesbrouck, Roman Cechmanek and Esche in the playoffs.

"Goaltending wins championships," Esche said. "Goalies can correct mistakes. I'll take all the pressure. I feel confident. I have my game where I want it to be."

The Flyers are one point behind the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers going into Tuesday's regular-season finale at the New York Islanders. The Devils also trail New York by one point. The Rangers host Ottawa, while New Jersey plays at Montreal.

Philadelphia will finish third, fifth or sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers will play Buffalo, the Rangers or Devils in the first round. They can only get home-ice advantage by winning the division.

Star center Peter Forsberg traveled with the team to New York, but his status for Tuesday's game won't be known until the morning skate. Forsberg has missed five of the last six games with a groin injury. With Forsberg in the lineup, the Flyers are 34-16-9. Without the former NHL MVP, they're 10-10-2.

"I want to come back as soon as I can," Forsberg said.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press