Injury makes Niittymaki probable Olympic starter

Posted: January 28, 2006

It's been an emotional ride for Flyers goaltender Antero Niittymaki regarding the Finnish Olympic team.

Between Dec. 22, when the team was announced, and Thursday, the 25-year-old Flyers rookie went from not being on the roster to being the projected starter.

"I don't know who it is," Niittymaki said yesterday, upon learning that Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen had pulled out because of a sore groin. "It's three weeks away, and I have not talked to the coach [Erkka Westerlund]."

Lehtonen said he expects Niittymaki will start by default. Westerlund is expected to add either Boston's Hannu Toivonen or Edmonton's Jussi Markkanen to replace Lehtonen.

"If I am the starter, it's great," Niittymaki said. "It's fun to play when it's the best players in the world. It's fun to play against them."

Initially, the Finns had Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and Lehtonen on the roster. Kiprusoff pulled out Dec. 31, and Niittymaki was added Jan. 13 to replace him. Lehtonen backed out Thursday, elevating Niittymaki.

"It's a little weird," Niittymaki said of his ride to the top. "But there might be changes because of injuries, and you have to be ready."

Niittymaki has shown this season that he can be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, and he deserves to be on the Finnish roster. He is 18-7-6 with a 2.82 goals against average and a save percentage of .899. He made 17 consecutive starts while Robert Esche recovered from a groin injury.

In his last 10 games, Niittymaki is 8-0-2 with a 2.33 GAA and a .924 save percentage.

Did Niittymaki deserve to start over Kiprusoff? No. Did he deserve it over Lehtonen? Absolutely.

"I think he is probably a little better [than Kiprusoff]," Esche said. "I hope he doesn't go over there with pressure because he is a terrific goalie. Between him and Kiprusoff, I pick [Niittymaki]."

Niittymaki says he doesn't believe there will be more pressure on him to make a good showing, nor does he think he must prove to Westerlund that his selection and elevation were warranted.

"I wasn't on the team in the first place," Niittymaki said. "Now I am. You can't expect anything special. I am still the backup."

The Flyers' Joni Pitkanen and Sami Kapanen were named to the team, as well, in December. Pitkanen will go, but Kapanen will not, because he wants to rest his surgically repaired right shoulder and his aching left knee. Kapanen wants to be healthy for the Flyers' stretch run after the Olympics.

"I said before that if Lehtonen pulled out, then Niitty should be the first goalie," Pitkanen said. "Niitty is automatically the [No. 1] goalie."

Added Kapanen: "It's good for him. The way he has been playing this year, he has carried the load for over a month. He showed he is capable of taking a team through tough times."

Niittymaki hopes to change Kapanen's mind about going overseas, but that doesn't seem likely.

"We can talk about it," Kapanen said.

Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock didn't know about Lehtonen pulling out and Niittymaki's job status. Finland is in Group A with Canada, and the two teams meet Feb. 19. Obviously, Hitchcock, an assistant for Canada, knows what his own goalie's strength and weaknesses are.

"That will be interesting playing them now," Hitchcock said. "I never thought about that. . . . That's good for him."

Loose pucks. Defenseman Freddy Meyer is expected to be recalled today and play against Tampa Bay this afternoon. Meyer was sent to the Phantoms strictly as a salary-cap move to save on his daily rate of $2,296. That may not seem like much, but given the Flyers' man days lost to injury (240) and the number of recalls, it adds up. That's why the Flyers have more than $200,000 in "call-ups" against the cap. . . . Chris Therien would likely be the seventh defenseman today. . . . Kim Johnsson, who will play with a shield, has not committed to wearing it long term.

Contact staff writer Tim Panaccio at 215-854-2847 or tpanaccio@phillynews.com.

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