PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Antero Niittymaki made it look easy.
Niittymaki stopped 19 shots in his first career start, and John LeClair
scored the go-ahead goal in the Philadelphia Flyers' 5-1 victory over
Washington on Wednesday night.
``I felt better than I thought I would in my first NHL game,'' Niittymaki
said. ``It was a pretty easy night. I only faced 15 shots or so in the first
two periods and they were pretty easy shots.
``The guys played well in front of me, especially against the power play.''
Simon Gagne, Kim Johnsson, Mark Recchi and Keith Primeau also scored to help
the Flyers take the top spot in the Eastern Conference and increase their
Atlantic Division lead to three points over New Jersey.
Robert Lang scored for the Capitals, who failed in a bid to win three
straight road games for the first time since March 2002.
Niittymaki, a 23-year-old Finn, got the start because Robert Esche sprained
his left knee in a collision with Gagne on Monday. Esche is expected to be
sidelined at least three weeks.
Jeff Hackett, Philadelphia's other experienced goalie, is sidelined
indefinitely by vertigo.
Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock said that Niittymaki looked excellent, just
as he has recently in practice.
``You're hopeful that he can do the same thing in a game,'' Hitchcock said.
``He's technically sound and he did the right things with the puck. He kept it
simple and we'll see how he looks tomorrow.''
Hitchcock said that Niittymaki would start in Atlanta on Thursday.
LeClair broke a 1-1 tie at 14:58 of the second period with a brilliant move.
Standing in the slot with his back to the goal, LeClair took a pass from Michal
Handzus, spun around and deposited a backhander past goalie Olaf Kolzig.
``Olie was unreal in the first period,'' Washington's Mike Grier said. ``He
gave us a chance to win the game. He battled and battled. I think we let him
down a little bit.''
Gagne scored his 100th career goal to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead at 14:09 of
the first period, flipping in a rebound of his own shot from the slot.
Lang, who leads the Capitals with 26 goals, tied it at 13:32 of the second.
Left alone to the side of the net, Lang's shot kicked off Niittymaki's stick
through the goalie's leg pads.
``Obviously when it's the goalie's first game, you want to get in the lanes
and put as many pucks on the net as possible,'' Washington coach Glen Hanlon
said. ``I don't think we passed up on chances, we just didn't get enough of
Johnsson and Recchi added power-play goals in the third period. Recchi's
came while the Flyers had a two-man advantage. Primeau's goal at 15:06 of the
period was an empty-netter.
Niittymaki has been a backup goalie for the Flyers in 11 games this season.
He was 14-7-5 in 29 appearances for the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL.
``He (Niittymaki) was the boss out there tonight,'' Primeau said. ``If he
didn't feel comfortable with the play, we told him just to swallow the puck up
and stop play.''