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Red-hot Niittymaki will watch for Finland

by Mike G. Morreale
It's quite possible the hottest goalie heading to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics might not even be starting for his respective country.

In fact, he's probably not even listed No. 2 in the pecking order.

But that means nothing to Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Antero Niittymaki, who will gladly join Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom in his second straight Olympic appearance for Team Finland. When they open the tournament against Belarus on Feb. 17, the Fins will have two-time Olympian Kiprusoff between the pipes.

"It's going to be awesome," Niittymaki told "(The coaches) let us know the plan when they called us, saying Kiprusoff will play and we'll go from there. Obviously, everybody wants to play, but I have no problem with Kiprusoff being there because he's a world-class goalie."

He'll leave for Vancouver on Sunday night following Tampa's game with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

While Niittymaki might not be the first choice for the Fins, he's certainly been the man of the hour in Tampa Bay for coach Rich Tocchet. Behind "Niitty", Tampa has won eight of its last 11 to vault into sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

"He's definitely earning his keep," Tocchet said. "We just keep getting great play from him."

In his last eight starts, Niittymaki has gone 7-0-1 with a dazzling 1.13 goals-against average and .962 save percentage. He's stopped 245 of the last 254 shots faced and has not allowed more than two goals in any of his last eight appearances.

"I've felt pretty good all year long," Niittymaki said. "I think I had a pretty good start earlier in the season and then my wife gave birth to a baby (girl) at Christmas time and I missed a couple games at a time when Smitty (Mike Smith) was playing well. When Smitty got hurt, I got to play more games and started feeling comfortable again -- I don't really think it's anything more than playing more games and feeling confident."

During the streak, the fifth-season goalie has beaten the likes of Roberto Luongo of Team Canada, Ondrej Pavelec of the Czech Republic, Jonas Gustavsson of Team Sweden and his fellow Fin, Kiprusoff. His only blemish was a 2-1 overtime loss to Switzerland's Jonas Hiller and the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 29.

He's been named the game's first star four times, second star three times and third star once over his recent eight-game stretch. For the season, Niittymaki is 16-9-6 with a 2.36 GAA, .922 save percentage and one shutout.

"Everyone talks about this (goalie) zone and I guess you could call it like that but I don't feel like that every game," he said. "I think you just feel confident as a team that you can win. You're more relaxed and you never panic, even when a guy has a breakaway. You feel like you're going to have a chance to stop everything. Even if it goes in, you still feel as though you had a chance to stop it. Sometimes you feel more relaxed and can see the puck better and everything just goes your way, everything feels simple."

Such was the case in 2006 when Niittymaki got the call to represent his country for the first time in his career in Torino, Italy.

When Kari Lehtonen and Kiprusoff were forced to pull out due to injuries, Niittymaki was given the opportunity of a lifetime. And he didn't disappoint, finishing 5-1 with three shutouts and a 1.34 goals-against average en route to leading Finland to a silver medal. His stellar performance earned him Most Valuable Player of the tournament.

"We're a small country and it was a huge deal (to win silver) back home," Niittymaki said. "It was awesome and definitely a moment that's right up there in my career."

One reason Niittymaki has been able to maintain such a consistent demeanor from season to season is the fact he doesn't believe in words such as "starter" or "backup" when it comes to goaltending.

"I think whoever is playing that night is the No. 1," he said. "Just because someone is No. 1, doesn't guarantee anything. I don't consider myself a No. 1, but I can play this game. If you think of yourself as a No. 2, then you'll start to play like a No. 2. You have to stay positive. It's a long year."

He's been on both sides of the fence throughout his career as a starter and backup in Philadelphia and now in Tampa Bay. On July 10, Niittymaki signed on with the Lightning following four-plus seasons in Philly.

"I played 52 games one year (in Philadelphia) and even though it wasn't my best year, I still played," Niittymaki said. "I've been in every position as a goalie, so I don't worry about (being No. 1 or No. 2) anymore."

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