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New Jersey trails Philly 3-1

4/15/2004

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Move over Martin Brodeur. There's a
new unflappable goaltender in the NHL.

Robert Esche has brought a calming influence to the talented
Philadelphia Flyers and helped push Brodeur and the defending
champion New Jersey Devils to the brink of a first-round playoff
elimination.

Esche made 35 saves in stealing Game 4 on Wednesday night,
leading the Flyers to a 3-0 win and a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven
series.

"For whatever reason, I am calm with him in the net," Flyers
captain Keith Primeau said. "There is no nervousness when shots
are put up, even when goals are scored. I don't worry about how
he's going to gather himself. He moves on the next play or next
shot. It's a settling feeling for the players."

Low-key Esche has given up eight goals in the series on 123
shots. The playoff shutout was the first of his career.

"I felt very focused in all four games," Esche said. "I
haven't had a problem getting up for the games. I've had a real
good confidence level."

Defenseman Kim Johnsson gave Esche an early lead with a goal
that atoned for a game-losing own goal two nights earlier.

Alexei Zhamnov and Primeau added third-period goals for the
Flyers, who can end the Devils' hopes of winning a fourth
championship since 1995 with a victory on Saturday in Philadelphia.

"We wanted to come up here and steal one," Flyers veteran Mark Recchi said. "We did it, and now we go home and see what happens Saturday. We know the Devils. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They won't go down without a fight."

Game 6 would be played in New Jersey on Sunday, if necessary. A
deciding game would be in Philadelphia on Tuesday, again, if
necessary.

The Devils should know a 3-1 deficit against the Flyers isn't
insurmountable.

When the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2000, they overcame the
same deficit in the Eastern Conference finals against the Flyers.
The Devils won Games 5 and 7 in Philadelphia, which also is what they
would have to do this time to extend their playoff run.

When New Jersey came back in 2000, Brodeur gave up only three goals in the
final three games and the Devils scored eight.

"It helps mentally that we know it can happen, that we can come
back and win the series," said New Jersey forward Patrik Elias, a
member of the 2000 team. "But it doesn't happen that often."

The way Esche is playing in this series, coming back will be tough.

Esche was outstanding in the first two periods. He stopped two
shots by Brian Gionta from close range in the first period and good
chances in close by Sergei Brylin and Jeff Friesen.

Friesen, Jiri Bicek and Scott Gomez all had good chances in the
second only to find Esche in the way.

"It's not like they were outplaying us," Brodeur said. "The
only reason why they won this game was because of Esche today. We
were all over them. We played well."

New Jersey was 3-for-5 on the power play in winning Game 3. They
were 0-for-4 Wednesday.

After losing Game 3 and getting only two shots from his top line, Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock met with Michal Handzus, John LeClair and Recchi for 30 minutes Tuesday.

When the puck was dropped Wednesday, Primeau was between
LeClair and Recchi, and Handzus was centering for Simon Gagne and
Sami Kapanen.

Primeau's new line didn't score on its first shift -- thought it came
close -- but Handzus and his new mates came through at 1:18.

Handzus tipped a Kapanen shot from the right circle, and Johnsson
rushed in from the point and put the rebound into an open net.

It was sweet revenge for Johnsson. Elias got the winner Monday night by banking a power-play shot off the defenseman's hip past Esche.

Zhamnov made it 2-0 at 4:45 of the third period, sweeping a shot
past Brodeur after taking a pass from defenseman Vladimir Malakhov.

Primeau scored late, knocking his own rebound past Brodeur, who
faced 25 shots.

Game notes
For the second time in four games, C Viktor Kozlov was benched by Devils coach Pat Burns. Bicek replaced him and had three good scoring chances. ... Johnsson was cut late in the second period, blocking a Gomez shot with his face. ... The crowd was announced as a sellout (19,040) although there were empty seats in the upper level of the Continental Airlines Arena.