Voorhees, NJ – While the name of Antero Niittymaki has become more and more well known in the Philadelphia area over the past three and a half years, hockey fans globally are now also aware of the talent of the 25-year-old Finland native after he led his home country to a silver medal in the Winter Olympics, earning MVP honors along the way.
That being said, Niittymaki's performance in Torino does not change the way that Ken Hitchcock will handle his goaltenders. After all, Robert Esche was playing as well as he has played all season prior to the break at the beginning of this month.
"He's an up-and-coming goaltender. He's a first-year player and the thing I value the most is that this is just another notch of experience to help him become better," said Hitchcock. "He's had a chance to play in the Calder Cup Playoffs and do really well, obviously, and he's done really well in the Olympics. This is just another level of experience that he's going to be able to bring forward as he's playing for us.
That being said, the NHL game is different from the wider-rink version employed by the rest of the world, and Hitchcock cautioned that people not get too wrapped up in Niittymaki's numbers with Finland.
"Let's see how he looks when he comes back over here. This is a different game over here," he said. "Angles are different and there's a tremendous amount of activity around the goal here; a lot more than there is in the Olympics. The shot totals are a lot higher here and the quality of shots is a lot higher in the NHL. Let's see how he plays when he comes back here and let's see how his energy is."
Esche, who was back in practice for the first time since returning from Torino, has been in this position before. During the 2003-04 season, he began the season as the backup to Jeff Hackett before he outplayed the veteran and earned the starting role as Hackett was eventually forced to retire to due vertigo.
"I know that [the media is] dying for there to be the goalie controversy of old, but I think I've done a reasonable job with that for the last bunch of years for the main reason that I think the more you get to know and understand me, I really don't care. I just want to win," said Esche.
"I'm a big enough man to realize that if I'm not playing well, I can't point a finger. I can't go out there and cut the guy's skate laces and slash his tires. The truth of the matter is, you're either going to win or you're not. If you carry that attitude along in Philadelphia, it alleviates a lot of the pressure and a lot of BS. That's the way I've looked at it the whole time here."
Put simply, the goalie that is playing better and winning games will be the one who ends up getting the majority of the playing time. Esche knows that.
"I think that Ken Hitchcock is going to play whoever is a winner. If you're winning games, he's going to play you," he said. "Obviously, [Niittymaki] was terrific over there and I'm really happy for him, but the truth of the matter is if him or I aren't winning games here, neither one of us is going to be playing.
"Hitch has been pretty fair with us all season and he's been fair with me for as long as I've been here. He's a winning coach. Winning coaches play whoever is going to win for them."
With the stretch run before the playoffs about to begin, Hitchcock mirrored Esche's comments.
"If somebody is going really well, we'll just run the table with him as long as we can. We've only got 24 games left," said the Flyers'' head coach.Partying in Finland
Flyers defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who pulled out of the Olympics due to injury, said that the silver medal-winning performance by his countrymen is being considered the biggest hockey feat ever in Finland.
"In my hometown, they said it was so quiet in the whole city because everybody was watching the game," he said. "Nobody was outside.
"It is huge. Finland has five million people, and they said three million people watched the game on TV. They had a party [Sunday] in Finland at 3:00 in the night. They had thousands of people outside when the team got back at 3:00 in the night."Injury Report
Ken Hitchcock updated the Flyers' injury list on Monday.
"[Simon Gagne] is really day-to-day. We'll see how he feels [Tuesday], whether he's going to skate or not. Kim Johnsson, Michal Handzus and Chris Therien will not start [Wednesday at New Jersey] with us. Kim and Chris are a little bit better but not enough to even start thinking about exercising. Michal is rehabbing right now and he's come along about as well as we expected. He won't play the first two games for sure. [Tuesday], we'll probably bring a forward up to give us 12 forwards."