PHILADELPHIA – Philadelphia goalie Antero Niittymaki can’t explain the reason for his perfect record against the Atlanta Thrashers, but he does know why the Flyers are back on the winning track.
Niittymaki made 29 saves and Joffrey Lupul scored the go-ahead goal in the third period to help the Flyers snap the Thrashers’ five-game winning streak with a 4-3 victory Sunday night.
“I really don’t know, I just feel comfortable playing against them,” Niittymaki said about his 11-0 record against Atlanta. “There’s no magic. Hopefully it stays that way.”
Niittymaki is one of only two active goalies in the NHL with a perfect record in at least 10 decisions against one team. Detroit’s Chris Osgood is 17-0 against Tampa Bay.
Niitymaki credits Philadelphia’s recent trip when the Flyers picked up five of six points with wins over the New York Islanders and Montreal, and an overtime loss at Pittsburgh with the team’s turnaround.
“I think sometimes when you struggle a little bit it’s good to go on the road,” Niitymaki explained. “You hang out together and get to know each other better and that makes us a tighter group. We battled hard all this week.”
Atlanta coach John Anderson wasn’t overly impressed by the Philadelphia goalie, who blanked the Thrashers 7-0 with 24 saves earlier this season. On Sunday night, he stopped 19 shots alone in the third period.
“He played decent tonight,” Anderson said. “I don’t think he was the difference. I don’t take any stock in that.”
Niittymaki helped preserve the Flyers’ lead in the second period when the Thrashers had a two-man advantage for 1:12. He’s 2-1-2 this season.
Simon Gagne had a goal and two assists, Mike Knuble had a goal and assist, and Kimmo Timonen also scored to help the Flyers to their second straight victory and third in four games.
Erik Christensen, Bryan Little and Vyacheslav Kozlov scored for Atlanta, which had dropped six straight games before its five-game streak.
Kozlov hammered in a rebound at 12:03 of the third period to pull the Thrashers back from a two-goal deficit to a 3-3 tie.
A minute later, Lupul skated in from centre ice, slipped around a defender at the face off circle, and put a slapshot from the slot between goalie Johan Hedberg’s pads.
“I just got the puck and skated down the ice and made a good move,” Lupul explained. “I’ve been struggling a little bit with the puck. I haven’t been getting as many shots and opportunities as I’d like.”
Hedberg, who had 28 saves for Atlanta, said that he was slow reacting to Lupul’s goal.
“He (Lupul) started winding up and I really didn’t get down in time and he squeezed it by me,” the goalie explained. “This one stings right now.”
Gagne scored unassisted to put the Flyers ahead 53 seconds into the first period. He picked up a loose puck deep in the Flyers’ zone, skated in, and went forehand to backhand for his 11th goal.
Knuble made it 2-0 with seven seconds left in the period. He scored his seventh goal on a wrist shot from the left circle after taking a cross-ice pass from Gagne.
Christensen got Atlanta on the board at 5:45 of the second period when his shovel shot from the slot trickled past Niittymaki. It was his first goal in 19 games dating to last March.
Timonen put the Flyers ahead 3-1 with a slapshot from behind the left circle on a power play at 11:27. Knuble picked up his 200th career assist on the goal.
Little got Atlanta to within 3-2 with a fluke goal 35 seconds into the third period. Niittymaki stopped his first shot, but the puck bounced off Philadelphia defenceman Luca Sbisa back into the net.
Notes: Philadelphia held the Thrashers to four shots in the first period, tying a one-period season low for the Flyers. … Atlanta C Little extended his point scoring streak to six games (four goals, five assists). … Gagne extended his points streak to five games (three goals, five assists). …Philadelphia C Mike Richards had his career-high eight game streak (13 goals, 15 assists) snapped. … The Flyers are 13-0-1 in the last three seasons against the Thrashers.