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Team Dealing With Loss of Niittymaki

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers
Voorhees, NJ – With the loss of one player comes opportunity for another.

While no one is happy to see Antero Niittymaki lost for up to eight weeks with a torn left labrum in his hip, it is an opportunity for last season's starter for the Phantoms, Martin Houle, to show that he is capable of playing at the NHL level.

"It was certainly unexpected but if they want to keep me here I am going to work hard and it's a good opportunity for me," said Houle. "I get a chance to give a good first impression and I want to take my chances."

While Robert Esche is obviously the starting goaltender, just being in practice is a benefit for the 21-year-old Montreal native, who posted a 18-18-1 record with a 2.54 goals against average in 40 games with the Phantoms last season.

"Guys in practice have better shots, are faster, and it is a chance to get used to the NHL a little more," said Houle.

Last season, it was Esche who was sidelined for an extended period of time with a torn labrum of his own. During that stretch in December and January, Niittymaki started 18 straight games while his backup at the time, Jamie Storr, watched all of those games from the bench.

That will not be the case with Houle, should he end up being the backup.

"If Houle is the guy who is going to be here then we are going to play him," said Hitchcock. "He has done well. We'll probably let Esche finish the last two [preseason] games and get used to the 60-minute action. I think it is unrealistic when you look at how many back-to-back games we have in the first half to expect Esche to take on all of them."

Houle was set to be the starting goaltender for the Phantoms, which will not be the case should he start the season with the Flyers. While that would result in less playing time, Hitchcock doesn't see that as being any sort of hindrance in Houle's development.

"I think any athlete tells you if they get a chance to play at the top level then that's a good thing," he said.

Houle has already played in four Flyers preseason games, allowing six goals on 39 shots for a 2.70 goals against average and .846 save percentage.

"The thing we are grateful for now is we got him in a lot of games," said Hitchcock. "We weren't thinking in terms of this happening, but now looking back it was a great thing."

The club is hoping that the loss of Niittymaki has no effect on the team, and that Esche can take the reigns of being the number one goaltender and Houle can fill in with a strong effort when he is called upon.

"Esche has been the goalie here for a couple of years so I don't think it will be a big distraction," said captain Peter Forsberg. "It is tough to lose a good goalie but it is a good thing we have two good goalies. Esche is going to play well and let Niitty take his time to come back.

"You have to look at the positives and keep from looking at the negatives. We have a first goalie, and a young guy [who will] get a chance to play."

The Flyers have reassigned center Marty Murray to the Philadelphia Phantoms.The team will travel to Annapolis, Maryland immediately following Friday night's preseason finale in Washington to take part in team building activities at the United States Naval Academy until Sunday.
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