Voorhees, NJ – Now that Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen will miss the Olympics, it was announced on Thursday, it appears that Flyers goaltender Antero Niittymaki will get the call as the starter for Finland in the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy.
Niittymaki, who was not even named to the team when the rosters were first announced is now thrust into the spotlight, as original starter and Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has also decided to forego the games.
"I never thought I would be the starter, but there was always a chance with injuries," said Niittymaki. "They have to name the team so early, so anything can happen. I kind of knew that I might still have a chance to go there, but I never thought that I might be the starter."
A relative unknown in the NHL until this season, Niittymaki has established himself between the pipes as Robert Esche has been battling a groin injury for most of December and January. In 31 games, Niittymaki has an 18-7-6 record and 2.82 goals-against average. He started 17 straight games for the Flyers until Esche was able to return on January 21 in Pittsburgh.
Lehtonen, who was expected to battle Niittymaki for the starting position before withdrawing, has been bothered by a groin injury of his own for most of the season. While Lehtonen has gotten much of the publicity as an up-and-coming star, it has actually been Niittymaki who has played the better of the two. In fact, Lehtonen's Chicago Wolves lost in four straight games to Niittymaki's Phantoms last season when the teams met in the Calder Cup Finals. Niittymaki was named the MVP of the Playoffs.
He has also had success against Kiprusoff, whose Calgary Flames visited the Flyers on December 6 of this season. After a scoreless battle through 65 minutes of play, Niittymaki stopped all of Calgary's shootout attempts while Kiprusoff allowed a goal to Mike Richards for a 1-0 Flyers victory.
Esche, who could be in direct competition with Niittymaki depending on who is the starting goalie for Team USA, feels that his counterpart is better than both of them anyway.
"I think he's probably a little better," said Esche. "I hope that he doesn't go over there with any pressure because he's a terrific goalie. I really think that between him and Kiprusoff, I'd pick [Niittymaki].
"He deserves everything he's got coming to him. He's played well all season long. He's just a great goalie, so it's going to be great for him. It's definitely a confidence boost, and it's going to be exciting for him. There's nothing bad that you can say about it. It's a big feather in his cap."
When it was brought up to Niittymaki that there might be some added pressure on him due to the fact that he was not originally even on the team, Niittymaki quickly brushed it off.
"I never really [feel] pressure very much," he said. "I want to play well every time I go out there, it doesn't matter if it's a preseason game or the Olympics. I try to do everything the same way and that helps me to handle the pressure a lot better. I thought about it a little bit [Thursday] night, and I don't really feel like I'm going to have a lot of pressure. It's going to be fun.
"I wasn't on the team in the first place, and now to be the starter you can't really expect me to do anything special," he said with a smile.