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Biron laying claim to starting goaltender spot

by Adam Kimelman
For most of the season, the Philadelphia Flyers have rotated goaltenders Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki, with the hope one would raise his game and claim the No. 1 spot for himself.

With his recent strong play, it seems like Biron has done just that. Since being pulled after allowing three goals in the first period of a game against Boston on Feb. 7, Biron has gone 6-2-0 with a 2.10 goals-against average, .944 save percentage and one shutout.

"Marty looks confident in the net," said Flyers coach John Stevens, whose team will meet the New York Rangers Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET) in the NHL Game of the Week. "He's square, he's challenging, there's not a lot of extra stuff hanging around when there's scrums around the net. He keeps things in front of him and doesn't allow pucks to go through him. I thought the overall body of work and the overall level of play of his game has been very good."

For the season, Biron is 21-13-5 with a 2.77 GAA, but he's won three of his last four starts, and has allowed just four goals in his last eight periods -- two starts and a two-period relief stint against Calgary on March 5.

"I feel like I'm doing some good things on the ice in practice and off the ice to get ready for games," Biron told "I think everybody understands this is the time of year you can't afford not to show up or do things your own way. You've got to stick to the plan, everybody has to buy into it and I'm doing the same thing. (Goaltender) is more of an individual position, but with Reggie (Lemelin, goaltending coach), looking at tapes, trying to follow a game plan to be successful and stick to that, it's working out pretty good."

It's working as well as it did last season for Biron. In 16 games last season, starting March 1, Biron went 8-4-4 with a 2.29 GAA, .922 save percentage and three shutouts, including back-to-back blankings of New Jersey and Pittsburgh in the last two games of the season to get the Flyers into the playoffs.

"This time of year, March, April, it's some of the best time to play hockey," said Biron.

Stevens said better play in net and better all-round team defense have been two sides of the same coin.

"I'm happy with the way our team is playing defensively and I think the two (team defense and goaltending) go hand-in-hand," Stevens said. "I think the confidence we have in our goalies right now gives us more confidence in the way we defend."

Stevens said he sees some of the same tendencies in Biron now that he did this time a year ago. The only difference now is Biron has the reservoir of experience to draw from that was missing last season.

"We're a little further ahead now only because we have that reference point of success last year, this time of year and into the playoffs," Stevens said. "This time last year we didn't have that. Everyone was wondering could he play back-to-back, he's never played in the playoffs before, what's going to happen. I think he proved to everyone that he could play at a high level. It was probably the best he's played in his career. When you have a reference point for success and you get another crack at it, you're more prepared to have success this time."

And Stevens plans to ride that success over the closing stretch of the regular season. Niittymaki, who looked good in stopping all 22 shots he faced in relief of Biron that Feb. 7 night in Boston, hasn't been the same since. He's 3-2-1 with a 3.54 GAA and .898 save percentage in his last six games, and was yanked from his most recent start, March 5 against Calgary, when he allowed four goals in the first period. For the season, he's 15-6-5 with a 2.71 GAA.

The Flyers play their final 17 games over the next 32 days, and with five sets of back-to-back games -- including this weekend's home-and-home set with the Rangers, capped by Sunday's nationally televised game (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) -- Niittymaki will see some time, but Biron will get the majority of the starts.

"He (Biron) is going to get a chance to play a lot, because we've got a lot of games," said Stevens. "At the same time, (Niittymaki) is going to get back in the net here in the next few days. It think it's important with the amount of games we have to keep both guys active (but) I do see Marty getting more work as we move along here."

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