Niitty Gritty: Lightning Netminder Helps Tampa Bay Enter Playoff Log Jam

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIJanuary 28, 2010


The Tampa Bay Lightning joined seven other Eastern Conference teams within one point of each other for the three final playoffs spots in the conference.

One point separates the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers from the 13th place Islanders and the Lightning's three-game winning streak has put them within the same margin of that sixth seed.

It's the first three-game winning streak for the Bolts in exactly one year, as Tampa Bay last won three games in a row on January 27, 2009.

Goalie Antero Niittymaki is one of the prime reasons for Tampa Bay's ability to finally break out of a win one, lose one cycle. After a horrible performance in an 8-2 loss in New York, Niittymaki has allowed just three goals in his last three games, including last night's impressive 3-0 shutout over the Montreal Canadiens.

The netminder nicknamed "Niitty" made 33 saves, including several difficult stops, allowing the Lightning offense the time to generate goals in front of him.

"I'm not the guy who's going to have a lot of shutouts, but I'll take the two (team) points," Niittymaki said, "It doesn't matter if the score is 6-5 or 3-0."

It matters for the Lightning's hot and cold offense that cannot score consistently. It also helps that Niittymaki showed his resiliency in the face of one of the worst games of his career on January 19th.

Niittmaki had given up five of the Rangers eight goals on that night, but looked shaky during his entire tenure in the game.

He's found his focus and it was desperately needed as he filled in for starter Mike Smith, who returned to active duty as Niittymaki's backup last night.

"Big saves. He played great," Lecavalier said about Niittymaki, who made his seventh consecutive start.

Niittymaki has had to endure some personal battles off the ice as well, suffering through a nasty bout with the flu and the premature birth of his daughter, Alina.

Six weeks premature, Alina struggled as her father tried to shake the illness and keep his hockey team in contention.

"A weird time," he revealed, "There were so much other things to think about."

Like his daughter, his strength began to return and he started to play out of his mind. In his past three games, he has stopped 90 of 93 shots for a .968 save percentage and a 0.95 goals-against average.

Alina, by the way, has gained weight rapidly and appears to be doing well.

Of course, it helps when the guys in front of him work some magic. Martin St. Louis scored his 14th goal of the season and Steven Stamkos scored for the third straight game.

Vincent Lecavalier brought back memories of the Lightning's Stanley Cup run by recreating one of the most amazing goals in Lightning history.

Lecavalier padded a one goal lead at 2:23 of the second when he got the puck put on his stick between his legs and fired a shot past goalie Carey Price.

The shot was reminiscent of Lecavalier's between-the-legs game-tying goal during the 2004 Eastern Conference semifinals against Montreal.

"Yeah, it's the first time since then," Lecavalier said, "It was almost the exact same play."

"Guys had short shifts. They did the right things. They played for each other and Niitty," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said, ""I think it was important for us to play the way we played tonight against a team that's ahead of us. We all talked about it being a playoff-style game. So the reaction of the players is very encouraging to us."

If the Lightning can continue to get the goaltending they received last night, they may not need between-the-legs goals to get to the post season this year.


    Golden Knights Give Merrill 2-year/$2.75M Extension

    NHL logo

    Golden Knights Give Merrill 2-year/$2.75M Extension

    Jesse Granger

    NHL Team Logos Reimagined as Flags

    NHL logo

    NHL Team Logos Reimagined as Flags

    John Lenard
    via Behance

    Injuries Prevalent Halfway Through Season for Bolts

    Tampa Bay Lightning logo
    Tampa Bay Lightning

    Injuries Prevalent Halfway Through Season for Bolts

    Bolts by the Bay
    via Bolts by the Bay

    Report: Sabres Raise Asking Price for Kane

    NHL logo

    Report: Sabres Raise Asking Price for Kane

    Puck Prose
    via Puck Prose