The reward was playing head-to-head against Brian Boucher of the Chicago Blackhawks, the guy who was traded for Esche as part of the Michal Handzus deal with Phoenix four summers ago.
Last night, Esche turned in a 26-save shutout for his first victory of the season as the Flyers defeated the Hawks, 3-0, at the Wachovia Center behind two goals from Peter Forsberg.
Making just his third start of the season, Esche did an admirable job protecting a 1-0 lead deep into the final period.
"I look at it as an opportunity to gain the respect of new people," Esche said. "There are people who left and now, the new people, I have to regain their trust and respect. It is exciting. My practices in the last week with Reggie [Lemelin, the team's goalie coach] were some of the best I have had. That is the main thing. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's a long season."
The Flyers played an up-tempo game, began with energy, and despite their continual frustrations to score goals early, stayed with a defensive plan to the bitter end. One play showed the team-wide commitment to defense that had been absent lately.
Former Flyer Patrick Sharp had a breakaway opportunity and Denis Gauthier raced from behind to sweep-check the puck out of the slot.
"Overall, we made a conscious effort to bear down, get back to basics, and play strong defense," Gauthier said. "We're on the right track. We did a lot of good things."
Forsberg's two goals gave him five for the season. He would have had a hat trick, but one goal was denied because of an early whistle during a five-on-three power play in the third period.
"It was very close," Forsberg said. "But I don't think it was in. [Jeff Carter] said it was in and I got upset with the referee. I've got to talk to [Carter] because it was not in."
Forsberg's second goal at 11 minutes, 57 seconds of the third period provided insurance. He took a rebound off the boards against Sharp and made an incredible move to pass the puck to himself between the young winger's skates, then raced to the net to beat Boucher with a backhander.
"I was trying to get it to the net," Forsberg said. "We said we would take it to the net a little more in the third. It was lucky it went though his legs. I didn't know it would do that."
Boucher had his work cut out for him in the opening period with 16 saves as the Flyers were all over the Hawks. Instead of 1-0, it could have been 4-0.
Forsberg's first goal came at 7:25. The worker bee on his line with Simon Gagne is Stefan Ruzicka. Off a dump-in, Ruzicka went to the right boards and checked Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook off the puck. Ruzicka then centered the puck across the slot for Forsberg, who went forehand-to-backhand on Boucher for a 1-0 lead.
The Flyers' 19 goals in regulation at the game's start were tied with Boston and Columbus for the fewest in the league. They had chances galore in this one, too, especially on the power play, where they went 0 for 6. They are 6 for 70 this season.
Esche, who had little work in the first period, was really tested with 15 shots in the middle frame. He had two fine stops on Radim Vrbata and one on Denis Arkhipov from distance to keep the shutout going.
The defensive identity that Stevens wants was there. (Hitchcock wanted it as well.)
"It's a step in the right direction," Stevens said. "Certainly, the way we played with the lead in the third, I was encouraged. We were very responsible."
Loose pucks. Trainer Jim McCrossin said Mike Knuble's surgery involved the placement of four pins in his left wrist. The winger is in a soft cast. . . . Sharp is averaging 15 minutes a game with Chicago on a line with Rene Bourque and Martin Lapointe. Like most Blackhawks players who are single, Sharp lives downtown. "Downtown Chicago is incredible, I love it," Sharp said, noting that things are a tad more lively than Voorhees. . . . It is looking more and more likely that Hitchcock will end up behind the bench in Phoenix, with Wayne Gretzky moving upstairs. . . . There were lots of empty seats at the Wachovia Center.
Contact staff writer Tim Panaccio at 215-854-2847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.