Esche gets the start in playoffs

Updated: April 21, 2004, 2:46 PM ET
Associated Press

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Despite his late-season struggles, Robert Esche will be the Philadelphia Flyers' starting goaltender in the playoffs.

Esche beat out Sean Burke for the job, and will play against Martin Brodeur and the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils in the first round. Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals series is Thursday night in Philadelphia.

"I'm excited. I've looked forward to it all year," Esche said Monday. "I can't wait to see when I get in the playoffs."

Esche hasn't started a playoff game in his previous five NHL seasons. He was 21-11-7 with three shutouts, a 2.04 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage in 40 games this season. Esche 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.

Since March 11, Esche was 2-4-2 and his goals-against average 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 Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock gave Esche the nod based on his overall performance this season.

"We just felt that based on his season, he's earned the right to start," Hitchcock said. "We have two competent goalies that we trust, but we really feel strongly that Robert deserves a chance to play in the playoffs."

Burke, acquired from Phoenix on Feb. 9, was 16-20-7 with a 2.73 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. He was 6-5-2 with the Flyers. The 37-year-old Burke hasn't won a playoff series since his rookie year with the Devils.

"We're not in a situation like New Jersey where it's basically Brodeur or someone who hasn't played before," Hitchcock said. "It's a situation where we have an experienced guy waiting, if things don't go well. But right now our focus is getting Esche into this experience and running with it. And see how far he can go with it.

"But we're not naive enough to not know that momentum can be swung on great goaltending performances, too. So if we think we need something, we'll make that adjustment later on."

Esche will be the seventh goalie to start for Philadelphia in the playoffs in the last 10 seasons. Roman Cechmanek was the starter the last three years, and the others include: Brian Boucher, John Vanbiesbrouck, Burke, Garth Snow and Ron Hextall.

Brodeur has been New Jersey's goalie during that entire span, helping the Devils win three Stanley Cups. Esche isn't looking at the series as though it's him against Brodeur.

"If you start getting into something like that, you're playing head games with yourself," Esche said. "There's no doubt this guy is the best goalie in the NHL year after year after year, so he's a Hall of Famer. I have a lot of respect for him, but I'm not going to put myself up against him because both teams play different. The only thing I'm looking to do is stop the puck."

The Flyers finished one point ahead of the Devils to win the Atlantic Division and earn the No. 3 seed. Philadelphia, which lost to Ottawa in the conference semifinals last season, hasn't won a Stanley Cup since winning it in 1974 and 1975.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press