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Niittymaki Making Most of His Opportunities

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

All The World’s A Stage

Antero Niittymaki was at the top of his game, and his timing couldn’t have been much better.

It was about a month before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy and he was told he’d be the No. 1 goalie for Team Finland. It was an honor, an opportunity, and he took full advantage.

What I like about him is he's out there early for practice and he stays after to take some shots if the guys need him. He's done everything and more. He's really professional. From day one, he has worked his tail off." - Coach Tocchet

Niittymaki shut out Switzerland in the first game and continued to lead the Fins all the way to the final with an amazing .951 save percentage and 1.34 goals-against average. Niittymaki also shut out Canada in the preliminaries and Russia in the semifinals before the Fins fell to Sweden 3-2 in the final. He earned a silver medal and was named the tournament MVP.

“I was feeling good about my game through the beginning of that season,” Niittymaki said. “I got the shutout in the first game and it just snowballed. I felt better every game and we played great as a team. It’s never easy to play against Russia, Canada and the U.S., but the way we played helped me out.

“It was an awesome experience. Almost the whole country is watching the games on TV. It’s a proud moment.”

Niittymaki is making a strong case to be on the Team Finland roster again for the Olympics next February in Vancouver.

From Turku To Tampa Bay

Through his first four starts with the Lightning, Niittymaki has earned five points with a .931 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average. He made 37 saves on 38 shots Saturday and three of four in the shootout loss to New Jersey, 2-1.

“Niitty kept us in that game,” Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. “He pretty much got us that point himself.”

Niittymaki also came up big in the 3-2 victory over Florida Oct. 12, making 31 saves and assisting on the winning goal after stoning David Booth on a breakaway.

Lightning coach Rick Tocchet called Niittymaki’s performance that night “solid as can be.” He used one word Saturday after the Devils game, “incredible.”

“He knows his role,” Tocchet said, earlier in the season. “We brought Niitty in to do what he’s doing. He was a No. 1 in Philadelphia and he’s just playing. What I like about him is he’s out there early for practice and he stays after to take some shots if the guys need him. He’s done everything and more. He’s really professional. From day one, he has worked his tail off.”

When Karri Ramo decided to sign with a Russian League team in the off season, the Lightning needed a veteran hand to play with Mike Smith in goal and Niittymaki was tops on the list. He later signed a one-year deal to do his thing for the Bolts.

Niittymaki had hip surgery to repair a torn labrum in 2006 and an arthroscopic procedure in 2008 to clean up scar tissue, but he recovered well and said he feels good. Since opening day of camp, he has shown the Lightning they have two No. 1 goalies. Smith has started seven of the 11 games, but Tocchet said that doesn’t mean Niittymaki should act like a backup, and he has not.

“There’s nothing wrong with in-house competition,” Tocchet said. “The good thing is, those guys get along well with each other.”

Getting Better With Age

Niittymaki won’t reach his 30th birthday until June, but it has been quite a journey for him from Turku, Finland to Tampa. His resume is filled with accomplishments and learning experiences which are still shaping his game.

The 6 foot 1, 190-pound Niittymaki was drafted in the seventh round of the 1998 NHL entry draft by the Philadelphia Flyers and was named rookie of the year with TPS in SM-liiga of the Finnish elite league, in 2000. After the 2001-02 season, where he finished with a .937 save percentage, he came to the Flyers organization and played for the Philadelphia Phantoms of the American Hockey League in 2002-03.

Niittymaki got his first taste of the NHL in 2003-04, allowing just three goals in three games, winning them all. When he finished the season in the AHL, he did something no other North American goalie had ever done – and probably will ever do. He scored a game-winning goal in overtime.

“It was the last game of the season and [Hershey] needed the win -- one point wasn’t good enough,” Niittymaki said. “They were on the power play 4 on 3 and they pulled their goalie to make it 5 on 3. I made a save and the player who got the puck tried to pass it back to the blue line. It went all the way into their net and I was the last guy to touch it.”

Goal Niittymaki.

“It was pretty funny,” he said.

The next season during the NHL lockout, Niittymaki was named MVP as the Phantoms won the Calder Cup. He finished with 15 wins, including three shutouts, and a 1.75 GAA.

The Comeback Kid

Niitymaki had 23 victories in his first full NHL season in 2005-06, sandwiching his dazzling performance at the Olympics, but the Flyers’ fortunes turned the next year. Injuries and some tough early-season losses sent them into a tailspin. Niitymaki finished with nine victories as the Flyers went 22-48-12.

“You keep losing and it affects you mentally,” Niittymaki said. “You don’t believe you can win anymore.”

Niittymaki said it took him a while to build his confidence back. But he said the season provided a good learning experience.

“I feel like I’m a better goalie because of that season,” Niittymaki said. “I’m mentally stronger, knowing what it was like to be at the bottom.”

Niittymaki came back with two solid seasons, going 12-9-2 and 15-8-6 with a combined save percentage of about .910 with the Flyers. His strong play is continuing some 1,000 miles south.

“He eats up pucks well and doesn’t allow a ton of rebounds,” Tocchet said. “His side to side movement is pretty special.”

Tocchet said the Lightning have two healthy goalies, unlike most of last season. He wants to keep it that way, so Niittymaki will get his opportunities.

“I don’t come into the season thinking I’m going to play 25 games,” Niittymaki said. “I just try to go game by game and see what happens. If I play at the level I know I can play, I’m going to get more games. If you start thinking that you need certain numbers, amounts of wins, save percentage, it’s going to affect your game.”

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