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Tampa Bay Lightning backup goalie Antero Niittymaki gets second straight start over No. 1 Mike Smith

TAMPA — Lightning backup goalie Antero Niittymaki has played his way into a second straight start and will be in net for tonight's game against the Panthers.

Coach Rick Tocchet said No. 1 Mike Smith is healthy and not sitting out because of any lingering effects from his Thursday collision with the Devils' Jamie Langenbrunner. Tocchet said only that Niittymaki played well in Saturday's 5-2 win over the Hurricanes, Tampa Bay's first victory.

Smith made a quick exit after Sunday's practice and was unavailable for comment. He said Saturday that though he experienced general soreness and stiffness from the collision, he could have played and "should be back and ready to go" for tonight's game at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Niittymaki said he's excited to get back on the ice after making 24 saves in his Lightning debut.

"Obviously, it's nice to get back-to-back starts," he said. "It's better than waiting two, three, four games, then go back in there. But I guess it tells you, if you play well, you're able to get minutes and get more starts. I think that's pretty fair."

Asked if Smith would start when the Lightning begins a road trip Thursday in Ottawa, Tocchet said, "Smitty is going to play a lot, but Niitty is going (today)."

Niittymaki said being able to make early saves, and having to play the puck some, helped him mentally and physically against Carolina. He went on to make 10 third-period saves, including a huge stop on an Eric Staal short-handed chance.

"I thought he played really well," wing Marty St. Louis said "He made some big saves at big times."

General manager Brian Lawton said after signing Niitty­maki in the offseason that the Lightning expected him to start 25 to 32 games. Though Niittymaki has had three hip surgeries since 2006, he said he's holding up well physically.

"I've been feeling good, knock on wood," Niittymaki, 29, said. "Everything is good, so hopefully it stays that way."

The players were feeling good Sunday, with a lighter mood during practice because of Saturday's win, which St. Louis said was "a monkey off our backs." St. Louis said he and his teammates believe they have played well the past week, outshooting opponents in their first four games, but couldn't come up with a positive result until breaking through against Carolina, snapping their 12-game losing streak going back to last season.

Now the Lightning (1-1-2) hopes to pick up its first back-to-back wins since mid March.

"This team had a hard year last year," wing Alex Tanguay said. "Sometimes winning is a lot about confidence, and when you get it, you can get things accomplished. A win like (Saturday) night will certainly help that and help us in that matter."

notes: Tocchet said injured defenseman Kurtis Foster could be available today. … Defenseman David Hale returned to practice after missing Saturday with the flu.

Tampa Bay Lightning backup goalie Antero Niittymaki gets second straight start over No. 1 Mike Smith 10/11/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 11, 2009 11:20pm]
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