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08-31-2004, 09:09 AM
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from today's Inquirer:

Esche ready for Canada - and critics

Playing in Philadelphia has taught the goalie a lot about controversy.

By Tim Panaccio

Inquirer Staff Writer

MONTREAL - After two torturous playoff months of being "Silent Bob" Esche, the Flyers goaltender has reverted to his talkative self here at the World Cup of Hockey.

"You can't shut me up," Esche announced.

Asked yesterday by a Canadian television reporter if Team USA's "sore spot" was its goaltending and if such criticism would motivate him, Esche, who will be in goal tonight against Team Canada, laughed aloud.

"No, I play in Philadelphia," he replied. "Doesn't bother me one bit. There is a goal-tending problem there every week. I am serious about that. Philadelphia has taught me how to deal with uncomfortable things and awkward situations. It really has prepared me for this."

Mike Richter carried Team USA to the championship in 1996. Now it falls on Esche's shoulders to repeat the task.

"I would not even put myself in his category," Esche said. "He is unbelievable. He was a Hall of Famer... . My job is just to stop the puck."

Coach Ron Wilson wouldn't say yesterday who his starter would be, but Esche let it slip. "I expect to start because our goalie coach told me I was," Esche said with a laugh, referring to Keith Allain. "Maybe I'm not. Maybe you guys are on to something."

Esche's stock rose substantially during the playoffs with his 2.32 goals-against average in 18 games for the Flyers. It also helped prepare him for pre-World Cup exhibition games.

"Robert played outstanding coming off the bench against the Russians," Wilson said of Friday's game. "They had eight or nine quality scoring chances."

Esche said he gained the confidence he needed from the playoffs, and added that his mental outlook remained the same. "I was very, very relaxed in the playoffs and I am the same way now," he said. "Nothing is bothering me. You either have a lousy game with five goals against or a shutout. It's a game of inches, as I have started to realize."

The exhibition games were punctuated by shutouts and scoring droughts. Wilson's club will approach the real games differently. "It's going to open up," said Tony Amonte, who will play on Scott Gomez's line along with Bill Guerin. "We're going to get the puck and move it up ice. It's a big change from the NHL season.

"Guys are excited. Open hockey. It should be great. If there is one thing people have said to me about the 1996 tournament, they said it was the best hockey they ever saw. Wide open. It was terrific. I think you're going to see that."

That wasn't the view being expressed by Team Canada's side.

Coach Pat Quinn said he would adjust his lines depending on how the Americans play. Wayne Gretzky, executive director of Team Canada, emphasized that Simon Gagne's defense was a major factor on his being selected for the Olympic team in 2002 and for the World Cup.

However, Quinn has Gagne at left wing on Brad Richards' line, with Martin St. Louis. It sounds more like an offensive trio. "There is going to be a lot of emotion in this game," Gagne predicted. "Two teams that want to win. It's fun to play the U.S. We have a great rivalry. I think it will be very physical and a tight game without a lot of space. A lot of chipping and forechecking, but not a lot of two-on-one or three-on-one hockey. You will see a lot of grinding."

Hopefully, it will be hockey the way it was meant to be played - wide open.

Loose pucks. Apologies to Kim Johnsson and Marcus Ragnarsson, both of whom are competing for Sweden. That makes nine Flyers in the tournament, not seven as reported yesterday... . Amonte says that even if there is no lockout, he expects to be bought out by the Flyers along with John LeClair. That is why the club signed Mike Knuble and Turner Stevenson. "Whatever happens, happens," Amonte said... . Jeremy Roenick says he wants to remain a Flyer but feels he will be traded anyway because of his $7.5 million salary.

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