BUFFALO - John Stevens was hoping that having Robert Esche back in net would be something of a boost for the Flyers.

The last time Esche played here, on Oct. 17, the Flyers lost, 9-1, and former coach Ken Hitchcock left Esche in net for every single goal. Esche hadn't played since leaving a game in Atlanta with neck spasms Feb. 3 and the coach thought that last night's match would be just a little extra "motivation."

It didn't have the desired result. Just 2:25 into the second period, Esche was pulled from the net after having allowed four goals on 14 shots. To be fair, like most of the losses this season, the 6-3 setback to the Sabres in HSBC Arena last night could not be hung solely on the goalie.

The Flyers were overpenalized in the first period, fell behind early on Buffalo's first power play, gave up easy position in front after Simon Gagne tied the game on guts and determination, and it was all downhill from there.

There were bad bounces and bad deflections, but they ended up in the net, and Esche ended up on the bench in favor of Antero Niittymaki.

"I'm motivated for every game that I play," Esche said. "I don't think I have to search for any motivation when I play the game. It was what it was today.

"There were a few weird bounces, and they all ended up in the net, and that's all that really matters at the end of the day."

Gagne was the Flyers' bright spot, skating long, hard shifts and scoring two goals. Sami Kapanen had the third goal, which drew the Flyers to 4-3 early in the third.

It was the kind of game Gagne needs to have as the best player on the team, but two players cannot a win make. The Flyers will cap a stretch of three games in 4 nights tomorrow in Carolina, having lost the first two by 6-3 scores.

"You get the feeling that the puck is following you and stays on your blade," Gagne said of his night. "That was the kind of feeling I had tonight.

"It was not [Esche's] fault. I think he was pulled just for a change in momentum. All those goals were not stoppable, especially the last one, before he got pulled out.''

That was Daniel Briere's 27th of the season, extending the Sabres' lead to 4-1.

"Briere just deflected it. It was the kind of goal that not even the best goalie in the league is going to stop,'' Gagne said. "When you play the best team in the league they're going to be tough to beat. You're talking about a team with a lot of skill against a team like we have here. It's pretty dangerous.''

After a sluggish start at home Monday night against Boston, the Flyers came out with energy, and R.J. Umberger decided to throw some fuel into the fire. He had been waiting for a long time to avenge the hit that Brian Campbell put on him during the first game of the playoffs last spring, the one that laid out Umberger and was played over and over again on the highlight clips.

On their first shift together, 2 minutes into the game, Umberger took Campbell into the wall and then got the defenseman to drop his gloves. It was something the two have talked about doing and the time was right, Umberger said.

"The last game I asked him to finish it, and he said they were short on [defense]. We kind of knew coming into this game that it was going to happen. Just something that I wanted to get over with," Umberger said.

It was a pretty good brawl, and Umberger got the most of both the number of punches and penalty minutes, drawing an instigator minor, a fighting major and a 10-minute misconduct. Campbell got only a fighting major.

It would have been a good moment for the Flyers if the Sabres hadn't scored. But they did. Derek Roy converted a broken play in close with a slap shot over Esche's stick side high at 4:04.

Gagne got the goal back at 11:25. He kept the puck in the zone during a Flyers' line change and after everyone was in the zone, he worked the puck in the corner and on the wall, then fought his way to the net and slid the puck under Ryan Miller, tying the game.

But less than a minute later, at 12:03, Andrew Peters was allowed to stand in front of Esche and collect a rebound goal and the Sabres went to intermission with a 2-1 lead.

The second period opened with a pair of quick Sabres goals, one by Adam Mair and then Briere's. It was 4-1 and Esche was headed to the bench.

Niittymaki made a couple of quick saves and Gagne scored his second on a shot to the corner that deflected in at 10:13, his 33rd goal of the season.

Kapanen gave the Flyers a moment of life when he rushed into the Buffalo zone, pulled up and picked the inside of the goal post to make the score 4-3 about 5 minutes into the third. But Chris Drury restored the two-goal lead at 7:39 on Buffalo's third power-play goal and Jason Pominville closed out the scoring at 13:07.

"I like the [energy] we played with, but when you get down, 4-1, against a team like Buffalo, it's just an uphill battle," Stevens said. "I certainly liked the way we played; we generated some offense there and some sustained pressure, but when you start chasing the game against good teams, it makes it very difficult to come back." *