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Flyers have tough choice to make between pipes

Thursday, 02.26.2009 / 9:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Chuck Gormley - NHL.com Correspondent

"I look at last year and the games I performed best were high-intensity, high-emotion, playoff-type games, and I need to bring that up now instead of at the end of the year."
-- Martin Biron

Three years ago, in Game 3 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Cam Ward replaced Martin Gerber as the Carolina Hurricanes' No. 1 goaltender and led them to a Stanley Cup.

Halfway through Game 4 of the first round of last spring's playoffs, Chris Osgood replaced Dominik Hasek as the Detroit Red Wings' No. 1 goalie and led them to a Stanley Cup.

Could a similar scenario be unfolding in Philadelphia, where Flyers backup Antero Niittymaki is challenging incumbent Martin Biron for the starting job between the pipes?

"It's not as if we're breaking a rule that's never been broken before," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "I don't know how many teams have the luxury of having two guys in the prime of their career on the same team that are capable of playing at a high level. We're one of them and I think we can use that to our advantage."

In other words, barring a trade for an established No. 1 before March 4, Biron and Niittymaki will duel it out for a chance to be the Flyers' starting goaltender in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

In all likelihood, it won't be an easy call.

Biron, 31, has been inconsistent this season. After going more than a month without a win and allowing 17 goals in a span of 13 periods, Biron turned his season around last week with three straight wins and a 2.02 goals-against average.

Biron might not have had the chance to find his groove if Niittymaki had not been sidelined for two games with the flu. The 28-year-old Finn entered this weekend having won five of his last seven games, with a 2.50 GAA.

Both goalies are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.

If you look at their numbers as a whole, Niittymaki (13-5-4, 2.58, .916 save percentage) owns a slight edge over Biron (18-11-5, 2.87, .909), with both goalies having limited playoff experience.

Biron first dipped his toes in the playoff pool last spring and took the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals, going 9-8 with a 2.97 GAA and .904 save percentage.

"That was my first playoff experience (last year) and I feel like it went really well," Biron said. "But every year you start all over again. That's how you build that warrior reputation. Patrick Roy is the winningest goalie of all time, but how he made his name is in the playoffs."

Despite his postseason success, Biron admits his game is still a work in progress.

"I look at last year and the games I performed best were high-intensity, high-emotion, playoff-type games, and I need to bring that up now instead of at the end of the year," he said. "That's the challenge, mentally and emotionally having the edge. That's the difference between the winning teams and the teams that are in the middle or bottom of the pack, and it's no different for individuals.

"You have to get fired up a little bit. I'm easy-going and I don't make spectacular saves very often. I'm like a duck. Everything looks nice above the water, but underneath I'm paddling like crazy. If I get burned, I want to get burned on high octane as opposed to sitting down and waiting for someone to take advantage of you."

Stevens said Biron's renewed focus -- he shut out the Sabres in the third period Thursday night after allowing three in the second period -- could make his decision easier.

 
"I think when Marty combines his talent with making saves on effort he can get to the level he was at last year," Stevens said. "He set the bar very high for himself (last year) and we believe he can get back there. I think we saw signs of that over the weekend (with back-to-back wins over the Islanders and Rangers)."

And then there's Niittymaki.

He won a Calder Cup under Stevens in 2005, but his only Stanley Cup action came in two relief appearances in 2006, when he allowed five goals on 29 shots (4.11 GAA, .828) in lopsided losses to Buffalo.

Niittymaki was given an opportunity to be the Flyers' No. 1 in 2006-07, but went 9-29-9 on the worst team in Flyers history.

"Toward the end of the season I kind of lost it mentally," Niittymaki admitted. "You lose your confidence and when the team's not that good, then it's just ugly and that's what happened."

As a result, the Flyers traded a 2007 second-round draft pick to Buffalo for Biron, hoping he would be the answer.

"They felt they needed a new goalie," Niittymaki said. "They really had no reason to keep me here. But I guess they believed in me a little bit."

Now the Flyers arrive at a crossroads in the goal crease, with two careers hanging in the balance.

"I can look in the mirror and know I can get it done," Biron said.
"I would love to stay here and I'm sure they know it. There are a lot of games left and it’s a long way until July 1." -- Antero Niittymaki
"I would love to stay here and I'm sure they know it," Niittymaki said. "There are a lot of games left and it’s a long way until July 1. But I have been through a lot here and I call it home. It would be awesome to stay here for a long time."
 
Stevens said he does not consider his goaltending situation a battle between two teammates.

"It seems like we're in a hurry to anoint one guy and push another guy aside," Stevens said. "To be honest, I think they both have been responsible for our success this year.

"We have a lot of confidence in both our goalies, and in our team, for that matter. If the (March 4 trade) deadline comes and goes and it's the team that's here, I still think we can compete with anybody and I honestly believe that."
Quote of the Day

I came into a team that had 65 points, that was at the bottom of the basement, a team that everybody wrote off as never going to be good. My goal is to go from the very bottom to the very top.

— Forward Brandon Dubinsky on signing a six-year contract extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets