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Hitchcock: "I haven't made up my mind"

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers
Voorhees, NJ – Despite Robert Esche saying that he did not think he would be the playoff starter in goal in Monday's Philadelphia Daily News, Flyers Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said that he still has not decided whether it will be Esche or Antero Niittymaki when the tournament for the Stanley Cup begins in late April.

"He's voicing his opinion, [but] I haven't made up my mind," said Hitchcock after the team practiced on Monday morning. "I'm not in any hurry. It's not a big deal for me. Both guys are playing well. We're not discouraged by any of our goaltending, especially as of late."

Esche stressed on Monday that he did not think anything was final, but that Hitchcock is leaning towards Niittymaki.

"I don't think there's been any decision made, what I said was, the writing is obviously on the wall," said Esche. "I have to work harder and get going. I've been very, very realistic with everything my whole career. Like I said, it is what it is. It doesn't mean I'm going to go out and start being a bad team guy or give a lack of effort, none of that. I am a very competitive person and it doesn't scare me one bit."

The two goalies have similar numbers. Niittymaki is 22-12-6 with a 2.96 goals-against average, while Esche is 18-9-4 and has surrendered 3.06 goals per game.

Niittymaki gained international attention at the Olympics, when he helped Finland to the silver medal, earning tournament MVP honors in the process. Even with that impressive showing, Esche started three of the first four Flyers games when the NHL season resumed. Niittymaki, however, has been the winning goaltender in three of the last four games during the team's current streak. He will also be in net when Philadelphia hosts the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night at the Wachovia Center (7:00 p.m., CSN).

Even with all of the commotion in regards to Esche's comments, Niittymaki prefers to keep a calm and cool demeanor. Like Hitchcock, he does not know one way or the other which goaltender will get the call for the postseason.

"I think I've played well enough to get the job, but at the same time Esche played well too," said Niittymaki. "It's up in the air, and it's coach's decision.

"I haven't talked to coach so I'm not really sure what's going on. Two weeks ago, I wasn't playing and Esche played three straight games. Whenever I get a chance to play, I do my best and go from there. We'll see what happens."

Captain Derian Hatcher thinks that it is not a big deal that the team does not yet know which goaltender it will be.

"It's been like this all year, and it hasn't been a distraction at all," said Hatcher. "I don't even think about it. Whoever is playing is playing and that's it.

"Through the year, both goalies have had good times and both goalies have had down times. I don't know if there is necessarily a preference. It's not the players' job, it's the coach's job to figure it out and that's the bottom line."

Toronto Makes First Philadelphia Visit Tuesday

The Toronto Maple Leafs will be in town on Tuesday night trying to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race. It will be the first of two visits, as they return on April 8. After beating New Jersey on Sunday night, 4-3, they are seven points behind the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens with 11 games to play.

Still, they are a dangerous team according to Simon Gagne.

"They are the kind of team where they can't lose any games anymore. That game might be tougher than the ones we had against the Rangers and Ottawa, and it's the kind of game where we need to be careful."

Peter Forsberg agrees, and stressed that the Flyers will have to come out of the gate strong.

"They are going to come out flying, playing physical and desperate, said Forsberg. "We have to make sure we are ready for them right off the bat and not sit back and wait for them to bring the game to us. We have to bring it to them."

Recipe For Winning: Checking

Philadelphia has outscored its opponents, 18 to 9 over its current four-game winning streak. The team has had a balanced scoring attack lately from all four lines, but that's not the reason it has been so effective, said Hitchcock.

"We're winning because we're checking. We're not winning because we're scoring goals. That's the buy-in that everyone had to go through. That's what we were missing for a period of time, some of it because of who we had in the lineup because of all the injuries. A great part of it was continuity.

"We're winning and scoring because we're checking. There are no other complicated reasons. We scored four goals against Ottawa because we checked them off the puck. The minute we get away from this, we'll be like a lot of the other teams in the league who aren't in the playoffs. You can't win if you don't check."
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