EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. 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.''
The 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-winning 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-to-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 is what they would have to do this time to extend their playoff run.
In coming back in 2000, Brodeur gave up only three goals in the final three games and New Jersey scored eight.
''It helps mentally that we know it can happen, that we can come back and win the series,'' said Devils forward Patrik Elias, a member of the 2000 team. ''But it doesn't happen that often.''
The way Esche is playing 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 on Tuesday.
When the puck was dropped on 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 they 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. Patrik Elias got the winner on Monday night, 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.
Senators 4, Maple Leafs 1
OTTAWA Daniel Alfredsson scored in the first period to end Ottawa's two-game drought against Ed Belfour, and Marian Hossa got the go-ahead goal that helped the Senators beat Toronto.
The Senators tied the best-of-seven first-round playoff series at 2-all. Game 5 will be played Friday night in Toronto.
Ottawa ended Belfour's shutout streak at 157 minutes, 45 seconds when Alfredsson tied the game with 35.6 seconds remaining in the first period.
Hossa scored his third goal of the series to give the Senators the lead in the second period. Todd White and Chris Phillips added third-period goals for Ottawa, which got 24 saves from Patrick Lalime.
Already without center Joe Nieuwendyk, the Maple Leafs lost captain Mats Sundin early in the third period. Sundin slammed into the boards after being tripped by Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden on a partial breakaway. No penalty was called.
Gary Roberts had Toronto's goal in the first period.
Lightning 3, Islanders 0
UNIONDALE, N.Y. Nikolai Khabibulin made 33 saves for his second straight shutout at Nassau Coliseum, and Martin St. Louis had a short-handed goal and an assist in Tampa Bay's victory.
Ruslan Fedotenko and Fredrik Modin added goals, and Brad Richards had two assists for the Lightning, who lead the best-of-seven series 3-1, with each game ending 3-0. They can advance to the second round for the second straight year with a victory at home Friday night.
Khabibulin got his third shutout of the series. He's been unbeatable at Nassau Coliseum, where the Islanders won 25 home games tops in the Eastern Conference.
New York hasn't scored since Jason Blake sealed the victory with an empty-net goal in the final minute of Game 2.
Avalanche 3, Stars 2, 2OT
DALLAS Rookie Marek Svatos and the Colorado Avalanche are on the verge of advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
Svatos, playing in his fourth postseason game after playing just four in the regular season, scored 5:18 into double overtime, giving Colorado a 3-1 lead in the first-round series.
Milan Hejduk and Joe Sakic scored first-period goals for the Avalanche, who will host Game 5 on Saturday.
Sergei Zubov, Pierre Turgeon scored for Dallas.
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.