Crashing the Crease: Unsung Heroes Part 2, Robert Esche

Between 2000 and 2010, the Flyers have been notorious for losing control of the so-called “goaltending carousel” and sending it spinning out of control in an endless search for a sure hand between the pipes. However, during that period the Orange and Black have gotten admirable goaltending that, in retrospect, may have gone under-appreciated at the time. Over the next few weeks, Crashing the Crease will take a look at these unsung heroes.

The second mainstay in the Philadelphia crease between 2000 and 2010 — and the second goalie featured in the Unsung Heroes retrospective — is none other than Silent Bob.

Silent Bo–wait, not that one. (courtesy imdb.com)

Wait, not that Silent Bob. Robert Esche, the unassuming goaltender from Utica, New York who backstopped the heroic 2003-2004 team that came up just short in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Robert Esche was a key part of the memorable 2003-2004 team. Courtesy Flyers.NHL.com

The 2003-04 campaign was a tumultuous one in net for the Flyers. Jeff Hackett was diagnosed with vertigo midway through the season and gave way to Sean Burke, acquired by trade from Phoenix. However, the one constant that year came from Robert Esche, the team’s 26-year-old backup. Whenever called upon, he performed admirably, and when the time came to determine his playoff starter, Hitchcock decided to see if Esche could take the reins and run with them.

Esche never looked back. The quiet goaltender held his game together under pressure, earning a trial by fire in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the defending champions: the hated New Jersey devils.

Esche’s response, aside form mum silence as he refused to speak with the press throughout the playoffs and earned his “Silent Bob” nickname, was a 37-save, 3-2 victory in Game 1 that saw him outperform Martin Brodeur in his first taste of playoff action. He would go on to backstop his team to a 5 game victory against the Devils in which he allowed more than two goals only once: a 4-2 loss in Game 3, which he bounced back from with a 3-0 shutout in Game 4 to give the Flyers a stranglehold on the series.

Up next would be the Maple Leafs, who the Flyers would dispatch in six games. Again, Esche and the Flyers defense would prove to be stingy, allowing Toronto score 4 and 3 goals in their two wins of the series but otherwise limiting to 1 or 2 goals in the Flyers’ wins.

The Eastern Conference Finals will be forever remembered as an emotional roller coaster, featuring unforgettable moments from many of the Flyers forwards. But the impact of a calm and steady goaltender in such an up and down series can be tremendous, and even though the Flyers came up short in Game 7′s 2-1 loss, Esche remained composed in the Flyers net, helping them to answer every Tampa win with one of their own up until that final game.

His final tallies for the regular season were impressive, even considering Ken Hitchcock’s typical zeal for smothering defense. In 40 games, Esche compiled a 21-11-8 record with a .915 save percentage and 2.04 goals-against average and three shutouts. In the playoffs, he was even more effective as he bumped his save % up to an impressive .918 along with a 2.32 GAA and picking up a shutout along the way.

For better or worse, that last season before the last lockout was Esche’s best season in Philadelphia, as he lost the whole of 2004-05 and saw his 2005-06 and 2006-07 campaigns marred by injuries and often carried by Antero Niittymaki in his stead. The Flyers were ill suited to the post-lockout NHL, and as the team went so did Esche.

But even so, his four-year Flyers career saw him earn a 60-40-16 record, seven shutouts,  2.45 GAA and halting 90 percent of all shots. Those may have been numbers more reflective of the era, but not awful. If Esche had avoided injury after the lockout (to be fair, much has been made about his reported inability to stay in proper shape during the lockout being the cause for this), and if the post-lockout Flyers had been better suited to compete with the likes of Buffalo, his years might have been better.

But at the end of the day, the 2003-04 Flyers squad is one of the most memorable and adored of the past decade, and Esche did what none of his peers could that season: he came in and played well, played consistently, and was exactly the type of personality in the locker room that the well-liked team needed. If not for “Chico,” many of those cherished memories may never have been given the chance to happen.

For that reason, when Flyers fans gloss over the lengthy list of Flyers goaltenders from the past decade, Esche’s name should not simply be skipped over.