Who Is That Masked Man? Antero Niittymaki Helps Tampa Bay Lightning Rise Above

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIFebruary 10, 2010

He twisted, he turned, he dove and flopped around. Shot after shot peppered him, but somehow he made the key save. As the team in front of him played "rope-a-dope," he stood strong, outplaying one of the best goalies in the NHL, Roberto Luongo.

His name is Antero Niittymaki, and he is the primary reason the Tampa Bay Lightning, winners of four straight for the first time since 2007, have risen to sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Niittymaki has essentially stolen the No. 1 job from higher paid incumbent, Mike Smith, as he's gone on a 7-0-1 tear in his past eight starts with a 1.09 goals-against average and an eye popping .965 save percentage.

Of course, he's not doing it alone as both Martin St. Louis and Steve Stamkos are on impressive streaks of their own, giving the netminder just enough fire power to prevail. Still, time and time again, the Lightning's young defense has left this goalie out to dry, only to see him come up with one highlight reel save after another.

Last night's game against Vancouver was just an example of how Niittymaki refused to allow his team to lose. Tampa Bay looked lethargic most of the game, outshot 40-19...that's not a typo, folks. The Canucks put up 21 more shots than Tampa Bay. Niitymaki stopped 39 of 40, and on the one he let through he was screened by three players.

This was a game that Vancouver should have easily won and on any other night, may have. Yet "Niitty" kept his team in it until the Lightning found their legs and pulled away with St. Louis' two goals in the third period.

"He kept us in the game," St. Louis told the AP. "Niitty made some big saves for us, and I thought we came out strong and played some pretty good minutes in the third. We got some goals, and we've been doing a good job playing with the lead in the third. Niitty, obviously, is the backbone of that."

"He's [Niittymaki] definitely earning his keep," Bolts coach Rich Tocchet said. "We just keep getting great play from him."

Niittymaki, the MVP of the 2006 Winter Olympics for Silver Medal-winning Finland, has been a backup for the Flyers for four years and came to the Lightning as a free agent this year.

Niittymaki also started for Finland in the World Championships before an injury forced him out of the tournament and was named to the 2010 Olympic team.

While their goaltender has been sensational, Tampa Bay knows it has to pick up its game if they plan on remaining among the conference's elite eight.

"We are just getting great play from [Niittymaki], Marty, and Stamkos, those guys are scoring every night," Tocchet said. "But we're putting the finger in the dike right now. Hopefully, we get some other people scoring before the dam bursts."