Flyers 2, Devils 1

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PHILADELPHIA (AP)—Robert Esche has given Philadelphia more than steady goaltending. He has the Flyers believing they can beat New Jersey.

Esche had 37 saves and Marcus Ragnarsson scored the go-ahead goal 23 seconds into the third period to lead Philadelphia to a 2-1 win over the Devils on Saturday.

“I think we are over whatever the problem was against this team,” Esche said.

The Flyers beat the Devils for the second time this week—they won 3-1 Tuesday—and have opened an eight-point lead over them in the Atlantic Division.

Philadelphia may have also gotten over its mental hump of not being able to beat New Jersey. After starting the season series with two losses and a tie, the Flyers finished with three straight wins.

“I don’t think we believed we could beat them,” Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. “There was a feeling something bad was going to happen every game. We don’t feel like that (now).”

The Devils have been a nemesis for the Flyers. New Jersey, which has won the Stanley Cup three times since 1995, has eliminated the Flyers in the conference finals twice in that span.

Devils coach Pat Burns didn’t want to hear about the Flyers’ supposed edge entering the playoffs.

“Don’t play that psychological stuff with me,” he said. “I’ll leave that up to Hitch.”

The Flyers got another strong performance from Esche, who seems to be peaking heading into the playoffs. He’s started six of the last eight games, including both starts this week against the Devils.

Sean Burke, 11 years older than Esche, is set to start Sunday at Pittsburgh.

Esche made a nice save off a three-on-one break, deflecting Jiri Bicek’s shot off his glove late in the first period. He came up big early in the second, stopping a flurry of shots when the Devils swarmed the net and smothered two quick shots in the crease midway through the third.

Esche started the season sharing goaltending duties with Jeff Hackett, who has since retired because of vertigo. Esche wasn’t even the Flyers’ goalie during the playoffs last season, beaten out by Roman Cechmanek who was traded to Los Angeles in May.

Hitchcock said the Flyers should have stuck with Esche last year.

“We knew what we had halfway through last year,” he said. “We succumbed to the pressure to put another guy in. I think we could have accelerated if we put Robert in, and I would have held to what my head and heart were telling me.”

Esche won the last two games against the Devils, while Hackett lost twice and tied once. Antero Niittymaki, called up from the minors when Esche was injured, had the other victory.

Ragnarsson’s quick shot from the blue line through a screen seemed to surprise Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. The shot flew past over Brodeur’s glove and went in for what proved to be the winner.

Brodeur had 19 saves. The Devils pulled him for the final minute.

“We were pretty confident playing Jersey,” Ragnarsson said. “We know we can get to Brodeur a little bit. We can get into his face.”

Simon Gagne gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead only 1:36 into the game with his 20th goal of the year.

The Devils tied it with 4:32 left in the second period when the puck knocked off the back of Scott Gomez’s stick and Philadelphia’s Todd Fedoruk kicked it past Esche with his skate. It was Gomez’s 10th goal.

“Right now it’s in their hands,” Gomez said. “They hold their own destiny. There’s still al of hockey left. They have a lot of tough hockey gamescoming up, but so do we.”

Notes

Devils C Erik Rasmussen played his 400th NHL game. … Flyers LW Radovan Somik will be sidelined indefinitely after breaking his cheekbone in a game against the Dallas on Thursday. … Flyers All-Star center Jeremy Roenick, out with a severe concussion, watched part of the game from the press box. …The Flyers are 5-0-1 at home over their last six games.

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Three Stars

  Game Winning Goal
M. Ragnarsson M. Ragnarsson
Philadelphia Flyers
Scored at 0:23 of 3rd

Goaltending

Goalie Team Shot Save
Martin Brodeur StL 21 19