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Flyers Balance Talented Goaltenders

Wednesday, 10.26.2005 / 12:00 AM ET / News
By Bill Fleischman  - philadelphiaflyers.com
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Flyers Balance Talented Goaltenders
The care and handling of goaltenders is often a hockey coach's biggest challenge.

By nature, goalies are confident and aggressive, but many also have egos as fragile as expensive wine glasses. If a team has a goalie who clearly is the No. 1, the problem isn't as difficult. The backup knows he will only play "X" amount of games during the season.

When the goalies are more equal in stature, however, it's up to the coaches, the team captain and the veteran players to keep both goalies pumped and ready to play. If a goalie has a couple bad games, the same people around him try to maintain his confidence.

With Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki, the Flyers have two talented young goalies.

Esche, 27, is in third season with the Flyers. He was traded by Phoenix, along with Michal Handzus, to Philadelphia in June 2002 for goalie Brian Boucher and a draft pick. Esche was in the nets when the Flyers came within one game of reaching the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.

Niittymaki, 25, was the Flyers' sixth-round draft choice in 1998. Last season, his third with the Phantoms, he helped lead the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate to the Calder Cup Championship.

Since Esche is the more experienced goalie, he entered the new season as No. 1. But Flyers Head Coach Ken Hitchcock won't hesitate to use Niittymaki, who compiled a 3-0 record with the Flyers during the 2003-04 season.

"We have a lot of history with Esche," Hitchcock said. "We trust him. He's been in big games with us and helped us win. (But) we know how good a goaltender Antero is."

Some NHL coaches prefer having an experienced goalie as backup. Hitchcock though is content to rely on the Esche-Niittymaki tandem. Hitchcock's dilemma is, if Esche has a bad game, does he immediately turn to Niittymaki?

"A coach has to forge a trust (with his goalies)," Hitchcock said. "It's too easy these days to ditch out on people."

When Ron Hextall, now the Flyers' director of pro hockey personnel, was a successful goalie with the Flyers, there was no question he was No. 1. But even then, Hextall says, "It's always in the back of your mind that if you don't play well, the other (goalie) will play." And if the backup goes on a hot streak, the former No. 1 goalie suddenly is No. 2 and watching games from the end of the bench.

Said Hitchcock: "Goalies think like that, but that's where a coach comes into play. The goalie in hockey is the same as a quarterback in football, the catcher in baseball or the point guard in basketball. They all don't play perfect games every time. You've got to hang in there with them."

Sometimes, following a Flyers loss in which Hitchcock thinks Esche did not play well, he'll turn to Niittymaki. But Esche knows that doesn't mean "Hitch" is abandoning him.

When Hitchcock coached the Dallas Stars to the 1999 Stanley Cup, Ed Belfour was the main masked man. He knew it, and so did his backups: Manny Fernandez, Marty Turco and Roman Turek. Belfour would play about 60 regular season games, then go all the way in the playoffs.

"Belfour wanted the same amount of trust back," Hitchcock said. "When he didn't get it, that's when problems were created."

Hitchcock also emphasizes that smart goalies are aware of the "patience factor." Said Hitchcock: "Goalies want to play every game if possible. But this is the National Hockey League. It's a long season. Your starter plays 50-plus games." That leaves enough games to keep the backup sharp.

While Niittymaki waits to establish himself in the NHL, Hextall believes there won't be any problems between the two goalies.

"Both are team guys, and both work hard," Hextall said. "When one is playing, the other will stay sharp."

Who you calling crazy?

Deserved or not, goalies have the reputation for being, shall we say, a bit off center. What person in their right mind would play a position where opponents fire frozen rubber disks at you at 100 miles per hour?

"I don't think anybody in that position is normal," Ken Hitchcock said. "Guys are always whacking at you, shooting pucks at you. It's not a normal position."

Like relief pitchers in baseball, goalies are entitled to be a little goofy. Whether it was superstition or he just wanted to cool off, Gary Smith used to remove all his clothes between periods of games. Gilles Gratton thought he was reincarnated.

Run this "goofy" theory by Hextall, however, and be thankful he doesn't carry a goaltender's stick any more. "You get one weird goalie in 20 and everybody says all goalies are weird," Hextall said. "There's at least one weird player in every 20. Goalies are no different than anyone else."

As a matter of fact...

"Goalies are the smartest guys on the team," Hextall insisted. "Everybody knows that. When two goalies are huddled talking, it''s because no one else can keep up with the conversation."

Anyone who has a problem with that view, contact Ron Hextall.

Rangers revived

Scanning the capsule preseason previews of NHL teams, I was momentarily startled to see Sports Illustrated pick the New York Rangers last. Last! Out of 30 NHL teams, SI relegated the Rangers to the ice-world''s dungeon.

Then I checked the Rangers' top three forward lines and defense and thought, who are these guys? Other than Jaromir Jagr and a few others, I was not familiar with many players.

Entering the season, Kevin Weekes was the Rangers' No. 1 goaltender. Weekes played with five NHL teams prior to joining the Rangers. He''s decent, but not the caliber of goalie who is expected to lead a team into the playoffs.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought SI had made a wise choice. After all, the Rangers haven''t qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1997, a fact that makes many Flyers fans smile.

Then the Rangers spoiled the Flyers' season opener, winning 5-3. Of Jagr''s first 10 goals, eight were on power plays. When Weekes was injured, newcomer Henrik Lundqvist stepped in and played well (three wins in his first four games).

When Jagr wants to be, he is a magical player. Rangers Head Coach Tom Renney says Jagr is setting a good example in games and practices.

Renney hopes General Manager Glen Sather will let the younger Rangers players develop. Why not? When Sather brought in all those veterans, the Rangers went nowhere.

"They''re building a team," Ken Hitchcock observed, emphasizing team. "They know that winning will take care of itself. They''ll be tough to play against all year."

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of ``Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of ``The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.




1 MTL 74 46 20 8 195 162 100
2 NYR 72 46 19 7 219 167 99
3 TBL 74 46 21 7 242 191 99
4 NYI 74 44 25 5 226 205 93
5 PIT 73 40 22 11 202 181 91
6 DET 72 39 21 12 208 195 90
7 WSH 73 39 24 10 212 180 88
8 OTT 72 37 24 11 212 190 85
9 BOS 73 36 25 12 193 190 84
10 FLA 73 33 26 14 180 201 80
11 PHI 75 30 29 16 196 216 76
12 NJD 73 31 31 11 164 186 73
13 CBJ 73 34 35 4 198 228 72
14 CAR 72 26 36 10 165 199 62
15 TOR 74 27 41 6 193 237 60
16 BUF 73 20 46 7 138 245 47


J. Voracek 75 21 53 7 74
C. Giroux 74 22 46 1 68
W. Simmonds 75 28 22 -5 50
M. Streit 75 9 36 -10 45
B. Schenn 75 14 25 -7 39
S. Couturier 75 13 17 1 30
M. Read 73 7 22 -7 29
M. Del Zotto 57 9 19 -5 28
M. Raffl 60 19 6 6 25
V. Lecavalier 51 7 11 -10 18
S. Mason 15 17 10 .926 2.25
R. Emery 10 10 6 .892 3.15
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