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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 p - WSH 82 56 18 8 252 193 120
2 x - PIT 82 48 26 8 245 203 104
3 y - FLA 82 47 26 9 239 203 103
4 x - NYR 82 46 27 9 236 217 101
5 x - NYI 82 45 27 10 232 216 100
6 x - TBL 82 46 31 5 227 201 97
7 x - PHI 82 41 27 14 214 218 96
8 x - DET 82 41 30 11 211 224 93
9 BOS 82 42 31 9 240 230 93
10 CAR 82 35 31 16 198 226 86
11 OTT 82 38 35 9 236 247 85
12 NJD 82 38 36 8 184 208 84
13 MTL 82 38 38 6 221 236 82
14 BUF 82 35 36 11 201 222 81
15 CBJ 82 34 40 8 219 252 76
16 TOR 82 29 42 11 198 246 69


C. Giroux 78 22 45 -8 67
W. Simmonds 81 32 28 -7 60
B. Schenn 80 26 33 3 59
J. Voracek 73 11 44 -5 55
S. Gostisbehere 64 17 29 8 46
S. Couturier 63 11 28 8 39
M. Raffl 82 13 18 9 31
M. Read 79 11 15 -5 26
M. Streit 62 6 17 -1 23
S. Laughton 71 7 14 -2 21
S. Mason 23 19 10 .918 2.51
M. Neuvirth 18 8 4 .924 2.27
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