Thursday January 20th, 2005

On Monday, the Spirit rover rolled 70 feet across Mars, setting a distance record for robot travel on the Martian surface and incrementally advancing NASA's search for evidence of life on the Red Planet. On the same day, the Flyers completed a trade for 37-year-old Phoenix goaltender Sean Burke -- yes, the same Sean Burke who passed through the Philly solar system six years ago. The Flyers hope that the deal will deliver what they always seem to be looking for: evidence that goaltending won't be their biggest question mark when the playoffs begin.

Philadelphia general manager Bobby Clarke deserves credit for being proactive -- the trade deadline is weeks away -- but the X-Filers at NASA are still closer to their goal than the Flyers are to theirs. Many teams have goalie carousels, but Clarke has presided over a puck-stopping centrifuge in recent years.

Since being swept by Detroit in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals, the Flyers have gone through 12 different backstops. Burke, a trade-deadline acquisition in 1998, was an early member of that group. He played like a white knight after the trade, going 7-3 down the stretch but fell off his horse in the playoffs, allowing 17 goals in a five-game loss to Buffalo in the first round. The Flyers let him leave as a free agent the following summer.

Burke isn't expected to carry the Flyers to the Cup this time around, a good thing when you consider he's won just 12 of 34 postseason decisions in his career. Clarke brought Burke back to keep the team afloat while starter Robert Esche recovers from a sprained knee. Esche, who should return by the end of the month, wrested the starting job away from Jeff Hackett this season and has the league's fifth-best goals-against average (1.91). (Hackett has been bothered by a case of vertigo and retired on Monday.) Esche has minimal postseason experience -- just 30 minutes of mopup for the erratic Roman Cechmanek last year -- but coach Flyers Ken Hitchcock has made it clear that, health permitting, he'll ride the unproven 26-year-old when the playoffs begin.

That's why the particulars of the deal for Burke are perplexing. Clarke also received winger Branko Radivojevic and the rights to unsigned 20-year-old forward Ben Eager, a first-round pick in the 2002 draft, from Phoenix. But he gave up center Mike Comrie, the goal-scoring threat he acquired from the Oilers and signed to a new contract six weeks ago. The Comrie deal cost the Flyers 20-year-old Jeff Woywitka, one of the league's top defensive prospects.

The 6-foot-1, 206-pound Radivojevic is a banger who instantly makes the Flyers bigger and tougher up front. Some day Eager (6-3, 211 pounds) may fill the same type of role. But essentially trading a potential backline star for two muckers and an aging goalie is a huge gamble, one that will pay off only if the Flyers are still alive come Memorial Day.

Philadelphia leads the Atlantic Division, and Clarke clearly feels a division title and high playoff seeding are critical to his team's Cup chances. (Last season the fourth-seeded Flyers were drained by a grueling seven-game win over the Maple Leafs in the first round and had nothing left in the tank against the speedy Senators in the conference semifinals.)

The hope is that Burke will help the Flyers hold their ground over the next few weeks, then step gracefully into the backup role when Esche returns. Esche and Burke were teammates in Phoenix from 2000-'02 and are close friends. That should make for a smooth relationship between starter and backup. Mentoring a raw goalie through his first gig as a playoff starter will be as much a part of Burke's job as stopping pucks.

That's assuming Esche's knee heals and holds up for the rest of the season. The Flyers were burned once by pinning their postseason hopes on Burke, and it's doubtful they look forward to doing so again. Despite all the dealing, their goaltending situation is, as always, unsettled. Philly's search for a savior in net -- and a Stanley Cup -- goes on.

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