VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) _ Robert Esche stood in the hallway at the Philadelphia Flyers' practice facility, laughing and joking with a former teammate.
Playoff pressure? Esche certainly hasn't felt any in his first postseason series as a starting goaltender.
Esche's stellar performance against the New Jersey Devils is a major reason why the Flyers are on the verge of eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round.
``Eschie stepped up at a critical time, and we responded,'' Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday.
Esche recorded his first playoff shutout with a spectacular 35-save performance to lead the Flyers to a 3-0 victory Wednesday night. That gave Philadelphia a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series, and it hosts Game 5 on Saturday.
Though the Atlantic Division champion Flyers came into the series as slight favorites, they were at a significant disadvantage in the goalie matchup: Esche vs. Martin Brodeur. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has led the Devils to three NHL titles since 1995.
But the 26-year-old Esche has outplayed Brodeur, allowing eight goals on 123 shots to put Philadelphia one victory away from advancing to the second round for the second straight year.
``Everybody thinks Esche is stepping up, but that's the way he plays,'' Flyers captain Keith Primeau said. ``We have total confidence in him in the net.''
The unflappable Esche has been good-natured with reporters in his two seasons in Philadelphia. He won the Yanick Dupre Class Guy Memorial Award last year as the Flyers player who ``best illustrates character, dignity and respect for the sport, both on and off the ice.''
But angered by criticism he received during his late-season struggles, Esche stopped doing interviews on off days once the playoffs began. He originally didn't want to speak after games, either but changed his mind.
While Esche has done his talking on the ice, his teammates and opponents have plenty of praise for him.
``You have to give credit where credit is due. He is the reason they are up 3-1,'' Devils center Scott Gomez said.
Esche, who came to the Flyers in a trade with Phoenix in June 2002, was 21-11-7 with three shutouts, a 2.04 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage in 40 games this season. He missed 11 games with a knee injury in February, and shared the goaltending duties early in the season with Jeff Hackett, who has since retired because of vertigo.
From March 11 to the end of the regular season, Esche was 2-4-2 and his GAA rose from 1.92 and his save percentage dropped from .919. He allowed at least five goals on long shots, putting his starting spot in jeopardy.
But Hitchcock gave Esche the nod over veteran Sean Burke based on his overall performance during the season. Esche hasn't disappointed, playing with determination and focus.
He made 37 saves, including several key stops late, in Philadelphia's 3-2 victory in Game 1. He had 24 saves in another 3-2 victory in Game 2.
``We're all over him, but can't seem to get one by him,'' Devils forward John Madden said.
The Flyers are careful not to look past the Devils, who came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Philadelphia in the 2000 Eastern Conference finals. But only four players _ Primeau, Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Simon Gagne _ remain from that Flyers team. And these Devils don't have perennial All-Star defenseman Scott Stevens, out with post-concussion syndrome.
``It's a different team, a different year,'' Primeau said. ``They're not going away quietly. We know that.''