John Smallwood: Flyers seem content with net results

Posted: February 25, 2009

WASHINGTON - The Flyers keep stressing there's no need to rush into a decision between goalies Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki.

With the 24 games remaining in the regular season, coach John Stevens still seems to be waiting for one of the two netminders to get hot enough to lay clear claim to the job.

And that might not be such a bad idea assuming Biron or Niittymaki has a spark inside that's going to take their game to another level.

But what if what we've seen is all there is?

What if the Flyers have two capable goalies, but neither is capable of standing on his head and carrying a team to a Stanley Cup?

So then, maybe, instead of waiting for one of the goalies to separate with spectacular play, you should just go with the one who's been most consistent.

That appears to be Niittymaki.

On Saturday, Biron's gaffe in the third period that led to a goal by Sidney Crosby became the signature moment in the Flyers' 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Last night, the highlight of the Flyers' 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals was the three-goal outburst in the third period that led to the come-from-behind victory.

But the only reason the Flyers were close enough to rally was because Niittymaki came up big in a couple of situations that prevented the Capitals from racing to a larger margin.

That the Flyers surrendered seven power-play opportunities is a story in itself. The fact that Washington only capitalized on one, was the bigger story.

Niittymaki didn't make every save. He got some help from a pipe on a shot by Nicklas Backstrom and David Steckel just missed badly.

But two other saves were top-notch, and there was no question about what they meant to the Flyers.

"We got a little bit sloppy on the power play," Stevens said. "We didn't do a very good job of executing, but when you get some saves like that it gives you a chance to regroup.

"[The Capitals] score on any of those and it's probably a different game."

Obviously, Stevens has a better grasp on his goalie situation than we do from the outside.

You assume he knows what buttons he can push and how long he can push them before making a final call.

But if you just look at the numbers, Niittymaki is now 14-5-4. Biron is 18-12-5.

Niittymaki's save percentage is .917. Biron is at .907.

Maybe those don't represent huge differences, but there is a difference.

Maybe it was the difference against a high-powered offense like the Capitals.

The Flyers had a lot of things working against them.

Washington has been close to unbeatable when superstar Alex Ovechkin scores a goal.

Going into last night's game, the Caps were 25-2-1 when Ovechkin snaps the back of the net.

Also, the Caps were 26-2-1 when taking a lead into the third period, and had only lost to Eastern Conference foes Florida and New Jersey at the Verizon Center.

So with Washington leading 2-1 after two periods, and Ovechkin having scored a goal and gotten an assist, things didn't look good for the Flyers going into the final 20 minutes.

But knowing things were not as bad as they could've been seemed to energize the Flyers in the third.

For his part, Niittymaki said he was just doing what he needed to keep playing.

"Obviously, you want to make a couple of those saves," he said. "If you don't make them, you probably get pulled after the first period.

"That's why there is a goalie there. Sometimes mistakes happen and the goalie is supposed to make those saves."

It's not likely that anything was decided last night.

The Flyers will likely still play both Biron and Niittymaki plenty of games down the stretch.

"It's like I said all along, we need both of these goalies playing a high level, stepping up at key times and making key saves," Stevens said. "I think we got that tonight out of Nitty.

"I thought that was tremendous. It gave our team a lot of confidence. If he doesn't make those saves, we're not feeling good about ourselves right now." *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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