Hackett out indefinitely

Updated: February 9, 2004, 10:16 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Robert Esche will be sidelined at least three weeks with a sprained left MCL, the team announced Tuesday.

Esche was injured in the second period of Monday's 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay when teammate Simon Gagne slid to disrupt a two-on-one rush and collided with his goalie.

Results of an MRI revealed a grade II sprain.

"Everything went as good as we could ever hope for," Flyers general manager Bob Clarke. "[There was] no other damage anywhere in the knee. It'll be a minimum of three weeks, but we're actually very fortunate it wasn't any worse."

With Jeff Hackett out with vertigo, Esche had made nine straight starts. He is 16-6-5 with two shutouts, a 1.91 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

Antero Niittymaki was recalled from Philadelphia of the American Hockey League and will share goaltending chores with Neil Little, a career minor leaguer.

The Flyers play Washington and Atlanta before the All-Star break begins Friday, and Clarke said he has no plans to shop for a goalie.

"We play two games and then we've got the All-Star break, so that'll help. And by that time, Hackett will be ready," Clarke said.

He said Hackett is expected to return next week.

Niittymaki, 23, is a second-year pro out of Finland. In 29 games with the Philadelphia Phantoms, he is 14-7-5 with a 2.14 goals-against average.

"You have to play hard no matter who's in goal," Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick said. "This is a chance for a young kid to make a statement. We should appreciate that and give him all the opportunity we can to let him make a big splash."

Niittymaki has made great strides since last season. He plays more upright, challenges the shooter and has learned to play the angles of the smaller rink.

"This is why I came from Finland last year, to play in the NHL," Niittymaki said Tuesday. "It's my first start, so I'm excited."

Niittymaki will be backed up by Little, his partner with the Phantoms.

"I learned to play the puck a lot, be more aggressive, come out more and challenge the forwards," Niittymaki said. "I'm not nervous right now, maybe tomorrow."

Coach Ken Hitchcock said he has faith in Niittymaki.

"Niittymaki has the same stats as [Miikka] Kiprusoff," Hitchcock said. "Who knew about him until he played for Calgary and stood on his head? We're excited for Niitty, and we'll see how he does."

Information from SportsTicker and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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