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Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Antero Niittymaki fights streaky reputation

Yes, Lightning goaltender Antero Niittymaki said, the puck really does look bigger when you play well.

How much bigger?

"It looks like the size of a basketball," he said.

And that's not all.

"When you are at the top of your game, you feel like some of the shots you're worried about, they're kind of simple. It's easy to control the rebound. It's easy to control everything."

Niittymaki is in one of those grooves. He is 2-0-2 in his past five games, with a 1.48 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage. He entered Wednesday with a league-best .940 save percentage and was second with a 1.95 goals-against average.

Niittymaki has been so good, he has forced coach Rick Tocchet into a two-goalie system rather than rely on inconsistent Mike Smith as No. 1, and he likely makes his fourth straight start tonight against the Wild at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

"He is," Tocchet said, "a very confident goalie."

As always with Niittymaki, though, the question is: How long will it last? It has nothing to do with the strength of his surgically repaired hips. The book on him is he is streaky.

Niittymaki, 29, a candidate for Finland's Olympic team, doesn't exactly bristle when asked to address the criticism, but he doesn't accept it easily, either.

"Pick any goalie in the league," he said Wednesday at the Ice Sports Forum. "(The Devils' Martin) Brodeur, (the Canucks' Roberto) Luongo, (the Flames' Miikka) Kiprusoff, look at them. Every single goalie is a streaky goalie."

The difference, he said, is the top goalies play after a bad game. As a backup the past two seasons for the Flyers, Niittymaki didn't have that luxury.

"I remember last year in Philly, I played six of eight," he said. "I got one bad game. I got pulled in the first period. I didn't play for three weeks. Why don't you put me out there again? Maybe I'd have a good game. It's hard to be consistent when you have one bad game and you're back sitting."

There might be something to Niittymaki's theory.

He was 12-3-2 for the Flyers last season from Nov. 16 to Feb. 8 but 2-5-2 the rest of the way and played only four of the final 19 games after being pulled from a March 5 loss to the Flames.

Still, there is a pattern.

Niittymaki was 9-0-2 for the Flyers from Dec. 17 to Jan. 6 during the 2005-06 season and 7-13-2 the rest of the way.

He was 6-0-1 from Dec. 30 to Jan. 20 in 2007-08 but 3-7-2 from Jan. 22 to March 29.

But Tocchet sees no reason the 4-1-2 Niittymaki will falter.

"What I like is he's got quiet movement," Tocchet said. "His side-to-side is as good as I've seen this year from goalies. You rarely see him out of the net where he's flipping and flopping."

Niittymaki said work with goaltenders coach Cap Raeder has conditioned him to stay at the top of the crease as opposed to coming out too far to challenge shooters or retreating toward the net when struggling.

"He's been great," defenseman Matt Walker said. "He's making big saves for us and giving us a chance to win every night. It's all we can ask, and he's doing it every night."

Must be the size of those pucks.

MILLER OUT, SZCZECHURA UP: Forward Drew Miller, who had zero points in 14 games, was lost on waivers to the Red Wings, and forward Paul Szczechura was called up from AHL Norfolk. Szczechura had team bests of 14 points and eight assists in 14 games for the Admirals.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Antero Niittymaki fights streaky reputation 11/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 11:29pm]
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