Esche in another world

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:46 PM ET


 He filled the NHL's toughest goaltending want ad, owns a bulldog, a boxer, rides a motorcycle and his brother is in the U.S. Marines.

 He unnerves his own teammates with his pre-game rituals and rarely seems to smile behind his bushy playoff beard. So don't expect the threat of increased traffic from the Maple Leafs tomorrow night to rattle Robert Esche.

 "Robert's in another world right now, just stopping pucks," Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said, speaking for the man who only speaks after games. "Robert could be playing street hockey, he wouldn't care. In competitive environments here, such as table tennis and bubble hockey, he's the same. Table tennis games in here are full contact."

 Esche, the talk of the series, which the Flyers lead 2-0, was his stoic self yesterday, prowling the Flyers practice rink in Voorhees, N.J. So Hitchcock fielded questions about the Leafs possibly targeting Esche's blue paint, which has worked so well for Philly against Ed Belfour in the series.

 "It's the verbal diarrhea that goes with the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "We say 'you have to shoot, you have to have traffic, he can't stop what he can't see, blah, blah, blah'. Our team is saying the same thing. It's garbage in, garbage out.

 "There's just a sense of traffic on the power play, which is what every team wants."

 Esche lashed out, too, in Game 2 and was called, but as Hitchcock said after Esche's sixth win in seven playoff starts, he'll tolerate any personality quirks as long as he keeps back-stopping Flyer wins. Esche is a committed Ozzy Osbourne/Led Zeppelin fanatic, who lists his favourite scent as fresh-cut grass. The goalie's colourful mask has pictures of Kid Rock, Hank Williams Jr. and an American flag.

 "He's just a low key guy who enjoys other things than hockey," Hitchcock said. "He is what he is. He's staying away from you folks, he's staying away from us and he just has his own down time. Sometimes when you're a goalie with no down time, it gets to be stressful. It's really the dumbest position in sports."

 His teammates, numbed by the erratic play of predecessor Roman Cechmanek among others, are thrilled that a piece of their championship aspirations appears to be filled.

 "There has still been goaltending talk, but in a much more positive light," Keith Primeau said. "We've been fortunate. We've had timely scoring, but you need to have solid goaltending. If he doesn't win you games, he has to win you periods and that's what he has done for us."

 The Flyers took yesterday off, except for a team meeting, and will work out today before flying to Toronto.

 "We've had the right save at the right time, scored the right power-play goal at the right time and preserved games in the last minute despite making a few mistakes," Hitchcock said. "We've played two teams (Leafs and New Jersey Devils) that were equal or better than us all year, but we just seem to be doing a few little things on the right side of that fine line. We certainly haven't dominated anyone."


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