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Esche standing guard as Flyers march along

Here at the we-can't-wait-to-get-ahead-of-ourselves puck bureau, the Bruins lost to the Canadiens last night, and are still in scratch-and-claw mode to make it out of Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Naturally, that brought us to their prospective Round 2 opponents, the Flyers, who yesterday afternoon eliminated the Devils in five games. Hopeless optimists here in the Hub of Hockey, aren't we?

Philadelphia, Land of the Skewered Goaltender (thy face is Roman Cechmanek) in recent playoff seasons, sent the defending Stanley Cup champions home, thanks first and foremost to netminder Robert Esche. Once Sean Burke's backup in Phoenix, the 26-year-old Esche thus far has been the backbone of the Flyers' impressive postseason start. Somewhat shaky as the season closed -- a mediocre 5-4-2 over his last 11 decisions -- Esche stopped 31 shots in yesterday's 3-1 clincher after blanking the Devils, 3-0, with 35 saves in Game 4.

"It's easy to put trust and faith in people when things are going good," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock reminded the media in recent days, reflecting on Esche's impressive run. "It's our business to put trust and faith in people when they aren't going good. That's the toughest thing sometimes."

Esche has been saying very little, perturbed over hints in the local media that his game was listing toward Cechmaneklike ineffectiveness as the postseason approached. For the most part, though, he has been looser, happier, and more effective this season, after hooking up with West Point-based sports psychologist Nathaniel Zinssert. At Zinssert's encouragement, Esche said earlier this year, he relinquished the age-old goalie ritual of putting on a "game face" in the hours leading up to faceoff, and his more relaxed, joking disposition led to better results in performance.

Zinssert oversees West Point's Center for Advanced Performance, where he works with elite athletes, including US Olympians, as well as US Army Rangers. Above all, he preaches concentration, remaining calm amid high-stress situations and chaos. Sound like a goalie's lot? Esche and Zinssert hooked up when the Flyers spent three days training at the US Military Academy at the start of the season.

"The biggest thing in my career I've ever heard came from Dr. Z," Esche said a few months ago, around the time the Flyers were busy acquiring Burke from Phoenix as net insurance. "It's changed me." Zinssert's message: relax, stay calm, make the most of the moment.

Esche, who grew up outside Utica, in Whitesboro, N.Y., also credits Burke's guidance a few years back as being instrumental in his development. Esche was more fiery in his Desert Dogs days, and it was the veteran Burke who encouraged him to resist the temptation to get involved in things outside of his 24-square-foot domain.

"I was a real head case," Esche recalled not long after arriving in Philadelphia following his trade there in June 2002. "I'd do a lot of dumb things -- try to fight, do all these dumb things."

Burke's advice, said Esche, toned him down. Nonetheless, Flyer teammate Jeremy Roenick recently referred to Esche as an "intense little bugger." Boston fans will be glad to know that Esche has a pet white boxer, named "Bruin."

One of Esche's brothers, Henry, left home a half-dozen years ago at age 17 to join the US Marines, just after another brother, Eliot, an accomplished artist who suffered with manic depression, committed suicide. Henry bolted for the military, with protracted tours of duty in some of the world's hot spots, including Afghanistan, while Robert eschewed opportunities to play US college hockey and thrashed his way though the Canadian Junior A system (Detroit, Plymouth) to make it to the NHL.

Asked not long ago if he worried about his Marine brother, Esche said, "Hell, no, he's got the chance to bomb the [expletive] out of somebody -- somebody evil."

Meanwhile, Esche keeps up his mission in the Flyer net. If Round 2 does bring the Flyers and Bruins together, it will be the first time the sides have met in the playoffs since 1978 -- a 4-1 Boston victory in the Cup semis.

Money for nothing

All that high-priced talent in Dallas, and the Stars were quickly dismissed by the Avalanche, who closed out their first-round series yesterday with a 5-1 win in Game 5. Pierre Turgeon (4 points) and Val Bure (3) were the top Dallas performers, while the likes of Mike Modano, Bill Guerin, and Jason Arnott cobbled together a mere 6 points. The Stars have just under $50 million committed for payroll next season -- roughly 70 percent over the proposed mythical cap figure -- and a first-round KO no doubt would encourage owner Tom Hicks to dish away some of those high-end salaries. But what the Capitals and Rangers were able to do in March the Stars might not be able to do in the months leading up to 2004-05 (if there is an '04-05) . . . In case you missed it, the Stars last week signed Lucien "Junior" Lessard, the Minnesota-Duluth right winger, via Quebec, who was this season's Hobey Baker winner. Lessard nearly drowned last summer in a Lake Superior riptide, but went on to score 63 points this season with the Bulldogs, who lost to Denver here in the Frozen Four semifinals . . . The Blues were the first team bounced in the postseason, rubbed out by the Sharks, 4-1. It was the worst postseason showing by St. Louis since a 4-0 first-round whitewash by the Stars in '94. Blues defensive stalwart Chris Pronger described the feelings in the dressing room as "anger, disappointment, frustration, and soul-searching." Other than a three-goal pop from Mike Sillinger in Game 3, the Blues had little in offense -- including Keith Tkachuk (0-2--2) and Pavol Demitra (1-0--1). Top-scoring defenseman for the Sharks: Kyle McLaren (0-2--2) . . . For the first time since the end of summer, owners and players will sit down a week from Wednesday (April 28) to see if they can find a way to prevent the expiring collective bargaining agreement from turning into a lockout/nightmare scenario Sept. 15. There will be another session the next day, followed by another two-day session May 24-25. The players insist the cap discussion is a non-starter. The obvious trade here -- and one that could provide owners a legitimate safety net -- would be to hand the players a lower threshold for free agency (now at 31) for the right to terminate contracts at vastly reduced buyout figures. For instance, if an owner is stuck with a deadbeat who is on the books for, say, $30 million over the next three years, allow the deal to be negated for 10-20 percent, rather than the current 66.6 percent figure. That's tremendous clout, and it is not a cap. It's also incentive for players -- some of whom pack it in after inking such rich deals -- to keep up their performance.

Now you see him

The Avalanche moved to their 3-1 series lead over the Stars on rookie Marek Svatos's strike in double OT. Svatos made the varsity roster out of training camp, but ripped up a shoulder in only his second game. The No. 227 pick in the '01 draft, Svatos finally made it back for the final two games of the regular season . . . Tied, 2-2, in their series with the pesky Predators, the Red Wings put up the battle cry, "Uh-Oh, Better Call CuJo." Last seen getting rubbed out in four straight by the Ducks in last spring's playoffs, Curtis Joseph responded with a nearly-airtight 4-1 win in Game 5. Meanwhile, Dominik Hasek, who bumped CuJo aside last summer by coming out of retirement, returned to the Czech Republic last week to have surgery aimed at correcting his chronic groin injuries. Hasek shocked and delighted the Wings front office three months ago when, after revealing that he couldn't play anymore this year, he told general manager Ken Holland that he was surrendering the $3 million balance the Wings owed him on his guaranteed $6 million deal . . . Something tells me that if the late Maurice Richard had run into the likes of Mike Ribeiro in his playing days, the party of the second part would have been flat on his back on the Montreal ice after fashioning that wave from the bench in Game 3 . . . Imagine, a state-of-the-art building like the Bell Centre and the seats don't have cup holders. Of all buildings, the home of the Habs, without a Cup holder . . . The Flyers may be getting the deal of the century, paying Esche only $560,000 this season and $750,000 next season. Here in Boston, Andrew Raycroft made $550,000 this year but is a Group 2 free agent now due a huge pay boost. Meanwhile, ex-Habs blue liner Gilles Lupien, agent for star Florida goalie Roberto Luongo, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last week that he would prefer the Panthers tear up Luongo's deal, worth $2 million for next season. Lupien is looking for money equal to the highest-paid netminders: CuJo ($8 million), Eddie Belfour ($7 million), and Martin Brodeur ($6.89 million). Panthers GM Rick Dudley would like to get Luongo on a long-term deal, but, he added, "We'd like to have won something before we start talking in terms of Patrick Roy [money]."

Hat trick

Calgary ritual: Following every game, the Flames award a green hard hat to their hardest-working player. Had Todd Bertuzzi been allowed to play for Vancouver in the playoffs, the Flames might have considered slipping that extra hard-hat protection under all their helmets . . . The NHL went to a best-of-seven divisional semifinal format for the first time in 1987. Beginning in '89, the eventual Cup winner for four straight years was forced into a Game 7 in the first round. The Cup winners were: Calgary ('89), Edmonton ('90), and Pittsburgh ('91 and '92). In the 12 years since, the Cup winner escaped Round 1 without being extended to a Game 7 . . . Mark Smith. He may win the award for Most Anonymous Hockey Name, but he also potted the winner for San Jose in the series-clincher against the Blues. "The hero thing is making its way around the room right now," said Smith. Ex-Matignon standout Niko Dimitrakos knocked home the OT winner in Game 1 for the Sharks. Cast as a fourth-line center, Smith was the 219th pick in the Jumbo Joe Thornton draft (1997), and got more playing time of late only after Sharks pivot Alyn McAuley banged up a shoulder . . . Had he not virtually disappeared from the Flames offense for the first two months of the season, Jarome Iginla would have been a worthy MVP candidate. Consider: Iginla had only 4 goals in the first 21 games, and followed with 37 over the final 61 -- a pace that would have brought him right to the doorstep of 50 goals had he maintained it the full year. Iginla's cold-pizza start left him without a goal on home ice until Dec. 2 . . . Brodeur's numbers vs. the Flyers: 1-4 with a .901 save percentage and a 2.61 goals-against mark. These days, those are the numbers of a practice goalie . . . Look for Esche to be front and center in Team USA's plans for this September's World Cup. If the NHL participates again at Olympus, he'd also be a prime candidate for Turin in 2006 . . . Nikolai Khabibulin's GAA for Tampa's five-game series against the Islanders: 0.79. That's not a typo. What was that about the Bulin Wall losing his edge? Meanwhile, perhaps an even more shocking number in the Lightning's postseason stats: Vincent Lecavalier, five games, zero points. Oh, and a minus-1, too. If he doesn't wake up, and soon, Lecavalier could be the hottest trade commodity on the draft floor in Raleigh June 26-27.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. 

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