BRANDON — Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said he will be hanged if he doesn't play goaltender Antero Niittymaki tonight against the Bruins.
By whom? The players? Fans?
"No, no," Tocchet said, insisting he spoke in jest. "But the kid is 7-0-1. I'd be crazy not to. You ride him. He's a hot hand."
Scorching, really, though Niittymaki's record in his past eight starts doesn't tell the whole story.
It's one thing to win. It's another to carry a team that during a 7-1-1 roll has scored 22 goals, a paltry 2.4 average, though that is plenty when your goalie is in a stretch with a 1.09 goals-against average and .965 save percentage in the seven wins and one shootout loss.
"He's been amazing," defenseman Andrej Meszaros said.
Please, Niittymaki said, "It's not that huge a deal."
"You're just relaxed and patient and wait for the puck to come to you," he said Wednesday at the Ice Sports Forum. "I'm not out there in a zone. You feel good and things are going good. That's about it."
Except, there is this:
Niittymaki, 29, never has had such a stretch in six NHL seasons. He was 8-0-1 from Dec. 22, 2005 to Jan. 6, 2006, but his 2.40 goals-against average and .921 save percentage weren't close to the numbers he is producing now.
This is career stuff.
Even fellow goalie Mike Smith, whom Niittymaki is keeping on the bench, is on the bandwagon.
"He's kept us in games and given us a chance to win every night, and we're getting rewarded for it," Smith said. "That's all you can ask from a goalie is to give a team a chance to win, and he's doing that and more."
Niittymaki, who is 16-9-5 on the season with a 2.36 goals-against average and entered Wednesday ninth in the league with a .922 save percentage, is intent on managing his success.
Serious about practice — "He's probably our hardest-working guy," Tocchet said — Niittymaki, also part of Finland's Olympic team, paces himself.
Instead of trying to stop every shot, he said he focuses on technique:
"You're not going to go post to post all the time. You have to focus on the right things. Do it like you would in a game, focus on positioning and movement."
"He's a quiet goalie," Tocchet said. "His movements in net are very quiet, excellent angles."
There is mental conditioning, too.
"When things are going well, you have to remind yourself it's the little things that are going my way," Niittymaki said. "I'm not much of a better goalie overnight, but when you're focused for the whole 60 minutes and you have the right positioning, things go your way."
Such as during Tuesday's 3-1 win over the Canucks in which Niittymaki made 39 saves.
Seemingly out of position after a stop, he lunged left with his glove to rob Henrik Sedin of what seemed a certain goal.
Then there were the bang-bang saves on Mikael Samuelsson and Alex Edler; the first off Niittymaki's blocker while he moved to his right, which put him square to the rebound and Edler's slap shot, which was gloved.
"It's one of those things where you don't panic," Niittymaki said. "You have confidence. You're calm. You look at the puck and let it come to you. You feel you have a chance to stop everything."
He gets another chance tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum.
And Tocchet avoids a hanging.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]