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Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki has health and confidence back

The goalie has had two surgeries in two years that now allow him to swivel around in the net without pain or lingering soreness.

The former Olympic tournament MVP is having fun again, and a summer of vigorous workouts back home in Finland have Niittymaki in perhaps the best shape of his professional career.

Healthy and happy, all Niittymaki wants now is his starting job back.

He might not get it.

Once a former top prospect in Philadelphia's system and only the fifth first-year goalie in team history to record 20 wins, Niittymaki starts this season as Martin Biron's backup. The Flyers' former goalie of the future might be lucky to play in 20 games much less get 20 wins.

While Biron earned the contract extension last season worthy of a legitimate No. 1 goalie, Niittymaki believes he can use training camp to make the fight for the job a true competition.

"I know the situation," Niittymaki said Saturday. "Marty signed a deal and he played great when he was here. He's a great goalie. But I'm going to do what I can do and then we'll see what happens."

Not only did Niittymaki win 23 games in 2005-06, he led Finland to the silver medal in the Olympics and was named the tournament's MVP. The Flyers have long been plagued by goaltender questions - one reason they haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1975 - and Niittymaki was seen as the player who could finally stabilize the position.

He was locked in a battle for the starting spot last year with Robert Esche, who started on opening night, but eventually won the starting job shortly after the season started. What should have been a time to prove he could be the long-term starter instead turned into a disaster.

Niittymaki needed cortisone shots in his left hip after he tore the labrum during training camp. Instead of having surgery that would have sidelined him for three months, Niittymaki opted for the shots, strengthening exercises and a chance to win the starting job.

The hip bothered him all season and he finished with only nine wins in 52 games. In three seasons with the Flyers, Niittymaki has a 35-44-15 record and a 3.12 goals-against average in 101 career games.

"There were times when it bothered me," Niittymaki said. "It didn't hurt all the time. There were times when it was kind of sore. Most of it bothered me during practice. I didn't practice hard enough to play well enough. That was the biggest thing."

With Niittymaki slumping, the last-place Flyers acquired Biron in a trade with Buffalo in February and immediately named him the No. 1 goalie. He won six games in 16 starts and signed a two-year, US$7 million contract later in the season.

"Clearly, we brought Marty in here to improve our goalie situation, but we think the world of Niitty," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "We're going to let that play out."

Niittymaki and Biron are on opposite teams for now after Stevens broke up the Flyers into four smaller squads that are scrimmaging through Sunday. The Flyers play the first of their eight pre-season games against New Jersey on Monday.

"We had two hard days of work, but we couldn't be happier about the fitness level of our team," Stevens said. "I thought the skate looked more energized today than yesterday in terms of the guys having legs to get around the ice."

Niittymaki had surgery on his right hip in 2006 and then had surgery on his left one shortly after the end of last season. Playing with achy hips and worrying if his health would only get worse affected his performance.

"It gets in your head," he said. "I'm not going to say that was the whole reason I had a bad year and the team had a bad year, but I don't think it helped either. I've got a fresh start now, healthy hips and I'm ready to go."

But if Biron gets 50-60 starts, that doesn't leave much playing time for Niittymaki. All he wants is a fair shot and the chance to prove that last year was only one bad season.

"If Marty plays, I'm going to help him as much as I can," he said. "I'm sure he'll do the same for me when I'm playing. We just have two goalies that could play for any team."


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