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Power Play: Niittymaki the answer

11/16/2009 - NHL

Simplifying his game

A year ago, only the Atlanta Thrashers gave up more goals than the Tampa Bay Lightning's 279 (the Thrash gave up 280). And there were many who believed that if a corner was going to be turned in Tampa, it would be turned with Mike Smith between the pipes. Well, the Lightning have managed to collect points in nine of their past 10 games and have given up more than three goals just once over that period of time to haul themselves back into the playoff fray in the Eastern Conference. But the team's vastly improved goaltending has been supplied not by Smith, but by longtime Philadelphia Flyers backup Antero Niittymaki. As of Monday morning, Niittymaki was second in goals-against average with a 1.93 mark and tied with Ryan Miller with the league's best save percentage at .939.

True, Niittymaki has played far fewer minutes, but for the Lightning, who haven't won a playoff round since winning the Cup in 2004 and have missed the postseason the past two springs, Niittymaki's play is a welcome tonic. The native of Turku, Finland, was named the goalie of the tournament at the 2006 Olympics in Turin but has been never managed to stake a claim to a starting NHL job.

Niittymaki didn't sign with the Lightning expecting to be just a backup.

"I never think coming into a season, I'll play 25 or 30 games and that's it. You never know how many games you're going to play. It's a long year and a lot of things can happen," Niittymaki said.

We're Not Done Yet …

What to watch for this week

1. Just wondering how the Boston Bruins recover from Saturday's colossal collapse against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, the Penguins are the defending Cup champs. And yes they did get Evgeni Malkin back, but with about 15 seconds left in the game and leading the Pens 5-4, the Bruins had the Penguins penned in their own zone when Patrice Bergeron's stick exploded in his hands trying to keep the puck in at the blue line. The Penguins went the length of the ice, and former Bruin Bill Guerin stunned defending Vezina Trophy champ Tim Thomas with a long wrist shot to tie the game with .4 seconds left. That's right, less than a second. Then, moments into overtime, Thomas became discombobulated behind the net and allowed Jordan Staal to feed Pascal Dupuis in front who tapped the winner into an open cage. Just one game, we know, but a game that seemed to reflect a leadership/focus vacuum that has consistently plagued a team that last year led the Eastern Conference pretty much wire to wire. The B's get a chance to put this one behind them when they entertain the Islanders on Monday night.

2. When the New Jersey Devils visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday night, they'll be putting a 9-0 road record on the line with a chance to equal the NHL record for most road wins to start the season. If the Devils tie the NHL record for 10 straight road victories established by Buffalo in 2006-07, their chances of advancing to at least a conference final appear to be excellent. ESPN Stats & Information guru Vincent J. Masi points out that in the three other major sports, the team or teams that hold the record for most wins in a row to start a season all advanced to at least a conference final, if not an outright league championship. The Sabres advanced to an Eastern Conference final after their stellar road start three seasons ago. No pressure, Devils.

3. So, the celebrating in the streets has died down after the Carolina Hurricanes managed to collect their first win in 14 games, a nail-biting shootout victory over Minnesota on Sunday. The staggering Canes are in Montreal against an up-and-down Canadiens team on Tuesday, entertain the lowly Leafs, and then play Southeast Division foe Tampa to close out the week. A good chance to turn a corner or conversely fall back and really start what many expect will be a fire sale of aging, expensive veterans by GM Jim Rutherford. Given the team's history of refusing to go down easily, we say the Canes get up off the mat. Stay tuned.

4. Look for the much-anticipated return of Alex Ovechkin to the Washington Capitals' lineup this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday in New York. Ovechkin left a game Nov. 1 against Columbus with a shoulder strain. At one point there were reports he could be out a month or more, but Ovechkin claimed he was joking (ha-ha). Barring a setback in practice Monday, Ovechkin should be back either Tuesday or later in the week when the Caps play Montreal and Toronto on Friday and Saturday. Ovechkin has 23 points in 14 games and is still tied for the league lead with 14 goals.

5. As screwed up as the National Hockey League Players' Association is these days -- and that's plenty -- kudos for those that remain amid the rubble for carrying on one of the most underappreciated, ambitious grassroots program in all of pro sports, the Goals & Dreams program. This week a group of NHLPA officials and former NHLers are in the midst of a 10-countries-in-10-days world tour dropping off brand new hockey gear to youngsters in need in places like Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, Riga, Latvia, Moscow, Russia, and Sarajevo, Bosnia, as well as North American stops in New York and Toronto.

In many of the places, a retired NHLer will be on hand to help with the donations, including Pavel Bure, Zdeno Ciger, Adam Graves, Arturs Irbe, Markus Naslund, Kevin Weekes and Martin Rucinsky.

By the time their trek ends in Toronto, with a celebration at the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Goals & Dreams folk will have dropped off $180,000 worth of gear to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program.

Check out the NHLPA Web site for daily updates. We hope to catch up with some of the boys at the end of their trip to see what was what.

The Goals & Dreams fund has made available $17 million to hockey groups in 22 different countries helping more than 40,000 kids.

Take this to the bank
Although it hasn't been formally announced, not only will the NHL be in Los Angeles for next June's draft (as our fine colleague Pierre LeBrun reported a week or so ago), but they will piggyback the draft with the annual awards show, which will be held once again in June in Las Vegas in the hopes the two hitherto separate events will morph into one mega-event.

The idea makes eminent sense, especially with the NHL locked into going to Las Vegas for the next two years after visiting Sin City for the first time last June. Usually there is a gap between the awards and the draft, which makes it difficult for media and/or fans and/or sponsors who want to attend both especially in the current economic climes. The one year in recent memory where the draft and awards show were conjoined was after the lockout in 2006 in Vancouver and was necessitated by the compressed schedule thanks to the Turin Olympics. The proximity of Las Vegas to Los Angeles should drive attendance up at the awards without hurting the attendance at the draft which should be a boon to both events. Look for a date to be announced in the coming days.

One thing that has changed, Niittymaki said, is his style of play.

In the past, Niittymaki said he was too aggressive in goal.

"I was all over the place," he said.

But he credits Bolts goaltending coach Cap Raeder with helping simplify and refine his game.

"I feel like a totally different goalie," he said.

"I still think there's no substitute for experience. He's been through a lot," Raeder told ESPN.com. "He's a smart guy. He's got a high hockey I.Q., that's for sure."

Technically Raeder said Niittymaki doesn't chase the puck as much, doesn't have to rely on his athletics because his positioning is better.

"I hope he keeps going," Raeder said.

So do the Lightning.

2. Your time will come, Canadians

So the Leafs want to have an outdoor game. Good for them. The Calgary Flames wanted to have one this season on the same day the Winter Classic is to be held at Fenway Park in Boston and the Canadiens wanted to have an indoor/outdoor game at aging Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Thankfully, the competition shut down both those ideas. We get it. Canadians are feeling unloved when it comes to having an outdoor game. Edmonton, of course, hosted the first outdoor game back before the lockout (good idea to have it at night in November when the risk of frostbite and other injury was sky-high, but we digress).

And honestly, we're not totally against a Canadian market getting another outdoor game. Hey, Canadians have as much right to freeze their butts off to watch a game as Americans. But the Winter Classic has been an unmitigated success, getting better and better as it's moved from Buffalo two years ago to Wrigley Field in Chicago last year and headed to Fenway this Jan. 1 when the U.S. Olympic team will be announced during the broadcast. The event has drawn huge television numbers (and my goodness, the NHL loves its TV numbers) and media interest has been significant, helping to spread the gospel of the game to that great, highly coveted segment of society known as the casual fan.

The last thing the league needs to do is somehow water that product down. Canadians want their own outdoor shindig? OK. But not on Jan. 1 and only when it will do nothing to detract from the success that is the Winter Classic. Makes sense, no?

3. Awaiting Hossa

If the Chicago Blackhawks hadn't been so impressive through the first quarter of the season, there might be a lot more anticipation at the long-awaited debut of winger Marian Hossa in the 'Hawk lineup. The free-agent acquisition has been rehabbing offseason shoulder surgery but skating with the team and is expected to join the team on its current road trip perhaps for a game Nov. 25 in San Jose. GM Stan Bowman, for one, has been agog at Hossa's skill level.

"Our fans, I don't think they know how good this guy is," Bowman told a couple of reporters recently. "When you watch him in practice you just think, wow. We've got some really good players on our team but he's just above everybody. Just watch him, in drills he just never misses. He scores every time down the ice. One time it's top glove then it's along the ice then it's between the legs. He's fun to watch."

4. Olympic bound?

The Los Angeles Kings are a veritable hotbed of Olympic dreams. No fewer than 10 members of the Kings have a shot at being in Vancouver for the 2010 Games. Not all will make it, but the dream burns bright for all of them. In no one does the heart of that dream beat harder than in forward Ryan Smyth. Dubbed Captain Canada by our own Pierre LeBrun after multiple appearances in the World Championships and Olympics, Smyth was invited to Canada's orientation camp in August but looked to be a long shot to make the Canadian team given his declining offensive output.

But playing alongside NHL scoring leader Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, Smyth has been dynamic, averaging more than 20 minutes a night in ice time and collecting 23 points in 21 games, second on a Kings team that is bidding to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

"I don't want to say it's something that we talk about every day. But guys mention it in passing. It's a great honor to be recognized as any candidate for the Olympics," Smyth told ESPN.com this week.

"You look around the room we're here to win hockey games for the Kings. Don't get me wrong, I know in the back of my mind, and I'm sure a few of the other guys to be part of the Olympics would be something special and it's there. But first and foremost it's winning hockey games here," he said.

Head coach Terry Murray has high praise for Smyth and his play, something that should resonate with Canada's team builder Steve Yzerman.

"He's just getting younger by the year. He's come into our team, and he's played very well. He's had an impact with not only the line that he's on but again the mentality of our whole hockey club," Murray said.
"On the offensive part of the game, he does some really good things, interesting things with the puck in the offensive zone. He plays that down low game very well, the give and go, he goes to the blue paint. He shows a great deal of composure in pressure situations with the puck and I think that's contagious. I think it'll have an impact on our young players as they move through their careers."

Was Murray surprised with the 33-year-old's play?

No.

"When you're paying a guy $6 million a year you'd better know every little thing that he's going to do for you and what he can do for you," Murray said.

5. Step in the right direction

The Florida Panthers were scheduled to announce their new revamped ownership group at a press conference Monday as minority owners Stuart Siegel and Cliff Viner were to become co-managing partners of the moribund team with majority owner Alan Cohen stepping into a more passive role. (Insert lame joke here about Cohen's tenure as controlling owner.) If a team's personality is dictated from the top on down, this is a welcome move as the Panthers have failed to make the playoffs since Cohen took over the team from Wayne Huizenga in 2001. The team's tenure under Cohen has been marked by rash coaching and managerial decisions that led, inexorably, to ghastly personnel decisions. The team has once again got off to a grisly start and will be a long shot to the make the playoffs next spring. Viner and Siegel are apparently hockey guys -- unlike Cohen -- and insist they are hoping to turn things around. We wish them well, but it's a long uphill battle to undo all of the damage that has been done to the Panthers, and it's going to take more than love of the game to get it done. Of course, loving the game is as good a place to start as any.

Stock up, stock down

Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings: Guess those early obits on both Zetterberg and the Wings were a bit premature, as the talented center has shrugged off a slow start to collect nine points in his past three games including a five-point effort against Anaheim on Saturday. He has 13 points in his past nine contests for the surging Wings.

NHL General Managers: We were all ready to blast the GMs last week assuming they would slough off any movement on eliminating head shots, but they (shockingly perhaps) proved us wrong by agreeing to study the elimination of blind-side hits to the head. Here's hoping the seven-GM panel rewards our faith in March by coming up with a concrete proposal to take to the competition committee with an eye to implementation next season.

Jose Theodore, Washington Capitals: Since we pumped Theodore's tires in this space a couple of weeks ago, the former Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy winner has gone south, allowing 12 goals on his last 56 shots. Yikes. We take it all back Jose.

Keith Tkachuk, St. Louis Blues: Like most of the Blues, the aging forward is struggling mightily this season. After looking terrific to start the season in Stockholm, Tkachuk has gone dry with zero points in seven games, one in nine and three in 14. Is it possible the ship has sailed for the old warrior?

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.