(Voorhees, NJ, December 6) – For Antero Niittymaki, the torn labrum in his hip that he suffered during training camp is just a memory. After all, the Flyers' netminder has steadily been improving his play since he has been the starter in every game since Robert Esche went down with an injury of his own on November 29.
It was about this time last season that Esche was out with a groin injury, forcing Niittymaki to start 17 games in a row. Philadelphia won 10 of the first 13 during contests that stretch.
"Our plan right now is to run with Niitty," said John Stevens after the team practiced on Wednesday morning at the Virtua Health Flyers Skate Zone. "I think he's certainly capable of playing back-to-back games and he showed last year he can play a lot of games and do very well."
"He was unflappable then, and winning games for us left and right," added Mike Knuble.
Niittymaki likes knowing he will be the guy between the pipes.
"You know you're going to play a lot of games and it's easier to prepare yourself every game and in practice. It's always fun to play a lot of games," he said. "I don't want to say it gets easier, but it's easier to prepare mentally."
Like most on the team, Niittymaki struggled out of the gate with a 2-9-2 record in his first 14 games. Now, however, he has yet to allow more than three goals in a game in his last six starts.
"The way he is playing right now, I see a big difference," said Simon Gagne. "He's more comfortable back there and is making big saves. He's one reason we're winning games right now. We all know in this league right now if your goalie is hot that can make a difference at the end of the game."
Niittymaki, though, is quick to deflect the praise to his teammates.
"I think it has a lot to do with we're playing a lot better. We don't give up those really, really good scoring chances every night," said Niittymaki. "There's been a lot of shots [from the] outside, and we've tried to play better defense and we have.
"There's a lot of straight shots and you try to keep yourself big [in the net] and get the high shots, too. I think I've always been pretty good with the low shots. I have to focus on high shots and so far it's been working well."
Another positive for the goaltender is how the hip itself is feeling. Niittymaki received a cortisone shot early in the year to avoid surgery and has not felt any pain since. It was thought that he would need another one around this point in the season or towards the end of the month, but right now nothing is scheduled.
"It feels so good that I don't think I need any shots right now," he said. "I'll just keep going as long as it doesn't hurt again."Getting Back to Basics
With the six-day layoff between games, Stevens has had a chance to get back to some hockey fundamentals before Friday's game at New Jersey.
"It's a really good week for us to kind of review everything and by the end of [Thursday] we'll have reviewed a lot of parts of our game that need work," said Stevens.
"I always like to structure my practices where you get lots of repetition and fundamentals. That means the spacing of our [defense], puck movement, puck support and just outright fundamental execution like passing the puck, moving your feet and taking pucks in stride. I think when that part of our game gets better, every part of our game will get better. When your fundamentals are good, it fuels a lot of your game, and that's where we're trying to get to."
The players themselves have no problems with that philosophy.
"There are just little things that you get away from that actually are pretty important," said R.J. Umberger. "You just look at some passes sometimes in a game that go off of your stick and right to the other team and they come right back at you. You have to eliminate those kinds of things. It's good to go back to basics."
"It's a lot of technique and playing defensive zone that as a hockey player you learn when you're young. Sometimes it's very good to go back and play very simple and that can make you win some games," said Gagne.