goalie Antero Niittymaki
never considered the acquisition of Martin Biron
last February as a slight on his ability. In fact, he looked at it as a reprieve.
After suffering a torn labrum to his left hip during training camp last season, the 27-year-old Niittymaki was in and out of the starting lineup while receiving cortisone shots in order to postpone surgery. He did an admirable job while fighting through the pain, but on Feb. 27, the Flyers added Biron, who immediately supplanted Niittymaki as starter, but also allowed Niittymaki to concentrate on off-season surgery and subsequent rehab in an attempt to return to the form he displayed in 2006, when he was named Best Goalie and Tournament MVP of the Winter Olympics for silver-medalist Finland after posting a 5-1 record, 1.34 goals-against average and .950 save percentage.
”Surgery went well, so it was a great time to get back in shape and rehab over the summer,’’ Niittymaki said. “It’s all about working hard to get back out there. There aren’t many X’s and O’s involved when it comes to goaltending. When I get a start, I just want to perform well and gain confidence.’’
Now, the confidence and determination in rebuilding his game prior to this season are paying dividends – not only for Niittymaki, but the Flyers.
Niittymaki has lost just once in regulation in his last nine starts (7-1-1). For the season, he is 9-5-1 with a 2.59 GAA and .919 save percentage. A sign that Niittymaki officially is back to good health came in a 5-3 victory over Florida on Jan. 16, when he turned aside 28 shots. With less than 15 minutes remaining and the Flyers clinging to a 4-3 lead in the third period, Florida winger Richard Zednik gathered a rebound to Niittymaki’s right and lofted the puck toward an opening on the short side. Niittymaki dove head-first into position and swatted the puck away with the blade of his stick. It was the save of the game and, perhaps, the season for Niittymaki.
Flyers coach John Stevens is delighted with the fact he now has two capable goalies and a team that is extremely confident with either in net.
”Having two solid goalies is a nice luxury to have,’’ Stevens said. “The addition of Marty (Biron) to our team last year instilled a vote of confidence and I think it really enabled our defense to play with composure. Marty’s arrival also allowed Nitty to work on his game and get back to the level he was before the injury. It’s a tough year on a goalie when you lose as many games as he did last year (9-29-9), but Nitty is a good kid and good goalie and he’s really worked hard on his game to get that confidence back.
”As a result, we now have two guys playing well at the midway point in the season. There’s a lot of hockey left, but we have two guys who are playing well and able to share the workload.’’
Niittymaki feels it has become imperative in today’s NHL to possess two quality goalies, particularly over a grueling 82-game regular-season schedule.
”It really doesn’t matter who’s in net,’’ he said. “We’re playing well as a team and that’s a bonus to whoever is in there. Marty and I have a great relationship. It hasn’t changed since the time he came in last year to this point in the season. I don’t think there are too many goalies out there capable of playing 82 games and expected to win on a consistent basis. Fatigue will eventually set in, so it’s nice to know you have a capable backup in net. You can’t expect to be hot all year long. I feel Marty has played extremely well when he’s been in net and I’ve gotten a chance to play a few games and have done well, so it’s a good situation for our team right now.’’
Considering the Flyers are tied for last in the League in shots allowed (32.9) per game and have been outshot on average by five per game, the play of Niittymaki and Biron has taken on greater significance.
”We don’t really talk about the shot disparity too much,’’ Niittymaki said. “But personally, I can tell you I like to have more shots. I don’t think it’s a huge problem because we don’t give up too many quality scoring chances. Some teams only allow 20 shots, but more quality chances. It’s really the style we play, which forces teams to shoot, but most of the shots are from the outside, and as a goalie, that’s a good thing.’’
Flyers left wing Simon Gagne knows either Niittymaki or Biron are perfectly capable of leading the club down the stretch.
”Marty had a great start for us and was probably the reason we had a great record early in the season,’’ Gagne said. “When we began struggling as a team and dropped to .500, Nitty got a chance and now he has come on. We like having two goalies we can count on and both guys have done a great job. But it’s never a problem when you’re winning. The only time it becomes a problem (two goalies sharing time) is when the team is losing. But so long as we keep winning, it’s a pretty easy decision to keep the hot goalie in net.’’
Niittymaki was the Flyers’ sixth-round pick (168th overall) in the 1998 Entry Draft. He was the first professional goalie to score an overtime goal in North American history, on April 11, 2004, as a member of the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate. Niittymaki was credited with a shorthanded, empty-net goal 2:32 into overtime as the Phantoms concluded the 2003-04 regular season with a 3-2 victory over the Hershey Bears, who had pulled their goalie while in need of a victory to qualify for playoffs.
”We received a penalty in overtime and Hershey needed two points to get to the playoffs so they pulled their goalie,’’ Niittymaki recalled. “They took a shot from the point, I got a piece of it, and the puck went wide. It was taken by one of their players behind our net and he tried to bang it off me but missed. I was sliding back into the goal at the time, but felt the puck deflect off my pad.’’
The puck made its way through the crease and off the far boards, deflected out of the zone and down the length of the ice before trickling over the goal line.
”All the guys rushed over to me to celebrate, but I obviously would have liked to score a legitimate goal and not something like that, but I’ll take it,’’ Niittymaki said.
Contact Mike G. Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org.