BUFFALO - It had all the trimmings of another Buffalo rout.

The Sabres took an early lead, scored three consecutive goals, and chased the Flyers' goalie from the game.

This time, however, the Flyers didn't completely fall apart. Instead, they made a game of it at HSBC Arena, pulling to within a goal before collapsing in the final period last night and losing, 6-3, to the top team in the Eastern Conference.

"They put us on our heels early, but halfway into the second period we turned it around, and their goalie kept them in the game," defenseman Denis Gauthier said. "We were right back in the game. We knew we could play with them, but these guys capitalize on their chances. They are that skilled. They make you pay."

Robert Esche, making his first start in goal since Feb. 3, lasted less than two periods, giving up four goals on 14 shots, although two were deflected. Coach John Stevens pulled him to change the momentum. It worked - for a while.

"It was more, Get him out, get him a break, and change the momentum," Stevens said. "There was an unbelievable amount of bad bounces there. We wanted to change the momentum. Our team responded, which is something we often do when we change our goalie."

Esche's last game in Buffalo, on Oct. 17, was a 9-1 humiliation that resulted in three players' being waived: Petr Nedved, Nolan Baumgartner and Niko Dimitrakos. It also played a role in the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock.

"Some weird bounces ended up in the net, and that's all that matters at the end of the day," Esche said of this game. As for being pulled in favor of Antero Niittymaki, he said: "It worked well. Our team responded."

Among the Flyers' positives: Simon Gagne scored two goals, raising his season total to 33, and Mike Richards had three assists.

Buffalo led by 4-2 to start the third period. The Flyers, who had 13 shots in the second period, got a goal from Sami Kapanen at 5 minutes, 17 seconds of the final session to make it a one-goal affair.

Not for long. The Sabres got a power-play goal from Chris Drury, a guy the Flyers would like to sign as a free agent this summer, at 7:39. Then Jason Pominville sealed the victory on a patented Sabres odd-man rush.

"When you get down 4-1 to a team like Buffalo, it's an uphill battle," Stevens said. "I certainly like the way we played, generating offense and pressure."

R.J. Umberger had been waiting since last spring to exact revenge for a devastating open-ice shoulder check by Brian Campbell in last year's playoffs, which left him with a concussion.

Barely two minutes into the opening period, Umberger and Campbell dropped the gloves, an unusual sight because Umberger rarely fights. He won a narrow decision while picking up 17 minutes in penalties, including two for instigation. Umberger had 18 penalty minutes all last season.

The instigator penalty set up the Sabres' first power-play goal, by Derek Roy. Hostilities continued as Todd Fedoruk fought Buffalo's Andrew Peters.

Gagne worked extraordinarily hard to tie the game at 1-1 at 11:25. Goalie Ryan Miller made the initial save on him, and the rebound squirted to the corner. Gagne retrieved the puck and went to the net, where he tussled with Henrik Tallinder and Jochen Hecht. He somehow managed to jam the puck under Miller for his 32d goal.

The momentum quickly flip-flopped as Buffalo took a 2-1 lead just 38 seconds later, when Andrew Peters scored his first goal of the season, on a rebound. In the first 2:25 of the second period, the Sabres got goals from Adam Mair and Daniel Briere to make it 4-1.

That's when Stevens changed goalies and the game swung the Flyers' way.

Gagne got his second goal near the midpoint of the game with a deflection off Miller's glove, cutting the deficit to 4-2.

"It wasn't too bad," Gagne said. "When you play against the best team in the league . . . when they decide to go forward and make plays, they are tough to beat. You're talking about a lot of skill against a team like we have here. It's pretty dangerous."

Contact staff writer Tim Panaccio

at 215-854-2847 or tpanaccio@phillynews.com.