TAMPA — Lightning goalie Antero Niittymaki just seems to be a little quicker, a little savvier and a little tougher to beat whenever he's facing the Atlanta Thrashers.
In one of his most dazzling performances of the season, Niittymaki had 37 saves to remain unbeaten in 15 career games against Atlanta, leading the Lightning to a dramatic and critical 2-1 shootout win Saturday night at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"He was excellent. He was incredible tonight," coach Rick Tocchet said. "He got us the two points."
The Lightning (21-20-10) and the Thrashers (22-21-8) are now tied with 52 points. Just as important, the Lightning won its second straight game even when it was far from its best.
Outside of Niittymaki, that is.
But he had to be with the Thrashers controlling the puck for much of the game and outshooting the Lightning 38-25, including 15-6 in the third period when they seemed poised to break a 1-1 tie countless times. And didn't.
"I felt pretty good," said Niittymaki, who was starting for the sixth straight game with Mike Smith (neck strain) still working to get back his hockey legs. "It was the first time in a long time I got some action early in the game, so I was able to get into the game more. There's been some games where I don't see really any the first period; I'm just standing there."
Not so much on this night.
Atlanta scored first at the 5:23 mark, but the Lightning tied it a couple of minutes later as former Lightning star defenseman Pavel Kubina, who had assisted on his team's goal, leveled wing Marty St. Louis and was called for interference to give the Lightning a four-on-three power play. Center Steven Stamkos capitalized with a blast from the left wing.
"That was a phantom call," Atlanta coach John Anderson said. "I don't know what happened. He ran into our guy, and we got a penalty. But other than that, I thought we carried the play to them and just couldn't score."
Anderson might have forgotten Niittymaki, who had a 1.86 goals-against average the previous 14 times Atlanta faced him.
Niittymaki forced the shootout with a huge block of a Kubina shot in the waning seconds of the overtime, helping the team kill a fifth Atlanta power play in the game.
"Him keeping us in there gave us life," Lightning center Jeff Halpern said.
Lightning defenseman Kurtis Foster appeared to score in the shootout, but after review, officials determined it hit off goalie Johan Hedberg's shin pad before going in; Tocchet said later he didn't realize that the play could be reviewed.
Not to worry. Niittymaki stopped a shot from center Rich Peverley. Halpern followed with a goal, and Niittymaki made it stand up, stopping center Todd White to end the game.
"I was kind of lucky; I guessed a little bit, and I put my glove there," he said. "We're 2-0 in this four-game homestand right now and … hopefully we can keep winning games."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.
|Tampa Bay wins shootout 1-0|
First Period—1, Atlanta, Antropov 13 (Little, Kubina), 5:23. 2, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 27 (Foster, Malone), 7:28 (pp). Penalties—Valabik, Atl, major (fighting), 5:28; Konopka, TB, major (fighting), 5:28; Armstrong, Atl (roughing), 6:01; Downie, TB (roughing), 6:01; Kubina, Atl (interference), 6:55; Walker, TB (cross-checking), 10:09; Antropov, Atl (roughing), 11:08; Thompson, TB (roughing), 11:08.
Second Period—None. Penalties—Downie, TB (interference), 14:25; Boulton, Atl, major (fighting), 18:32; Walker, TB, major (fighting), 18:32; Malone, TB (cross-checking), 19:33.
Third Period—None. Penalties—Stamkos, TB (hooking), 2:57; Lundin, TB (slashing), 5:22; Reasoner, Atl (tripping), 8:13; Enstrom, Atl (hooking), 12:38.
Overtime—None. Penalties—Kubina, Atl (tripping), 2:03; Tanguay, TB (interference), 3:51.
Shootout—Atlanta 0 (Afinogenov NG, Kovalchuk NG, Little NG, Peverley NG, White NG), Tampa Bay 1 (Stamkos NG, Downie NG, Lecavalier NG, Foster NG, Halpern G). Shots on Goal—Atlanta 10-10-15-3—38. Tampa Bay 7-10-6-3—26. Power-play opportunities—Atlanta 0 of 6; Tampa Bay 1 of 4. Goalies—Atlanta, Hedberg 10-8-4 (26 shots-25 saves). Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 11-9-4 (38-37). A—16,212 (19,758). T—2:56. Referees—Stephane Auger, Brad Meier. Linesmen—Greg Devorski, Jonny Murray.