Antero Niittymaki Making Serious Bid for Top Job in Finland's Net

Matt HutterAnalyst IFebruary 10, 2010

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27: Antero Niittymaki #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates out to play against the Montreal Canadiens at the St. Pete Times Forum on January 27, 2010 in Tampa, Florida. The Lightning defeated the Canadiens 3-0. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As the beginning of the 2010 Winter Olympics is but days away, national team GMs are looking at their roster selections with a microscope.

Official team rosters are due on Monday, February 15 and while most players named to their national team's in December are secured a spot on the, the role some will play has yet to be determined.

As I reported in January , looking at Team Finland's roster, deciding which of Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, or Antero Niittymaki will start in goal for the Finns was going to be a tough decision.

However, Antero Niittymaki may be making that decision quite a bit easier for Team Finland GM Jari Kurri.

Over the past two weeks, Niittymaki's play has vaulted the Tampa Bay Lightning from a team well outside the playoff picture to sixth in the Eastern Conference and second in the Southeast Division.

Over his past seven games, Niittymaki is 6-0-1 posting a minuscule 0.97 goals against average and a gaudy .970 save percentage.

Considering that the most defensively responsible defenseman in front of him is rookie Victor Hedman (plus-4), his numbers reveal not only a goalie that is lightning-hot (I couldn't resist) but one that is largely putting his team on his back.

That's just the kind of goalie Team Finland will need if they're to mount a serious effort to capture gold for the first time in team history.

Though a remarkably balanced team, Team Finland is without the kind of marquee offensive players abundant on other national teams.

Amidst the likes of Sidney Crosby (Canada), Alex Ovechkin (Russia), and Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden), each top-tier offensive players and all under 25 years old, Finland's top offensive weapons will be aging stars Saku Koivu (35) and Teemu Selanne (39).

Clearly, Team Finland will not be able to win games against the likes of Canada or Russia should they turn into primarily offensive contests.

No, the key to Team Finland's success will be team defense in general and goaltending in particular.

Though Miikka Kiprusoff has been Finland's expected No. 1 goalie since he was named to the team in December (largely due to his very public decree that he should only be named to the roster if he was the undisputed starter), ignoring the play of Antero Niittymaki would be display of willful stupidity that can hardly be expected from a team consistently committed to winning.

Niittymaki already had a lot going for him inasmuch as his 2006 tournament MVP status made his selection to Team Finland almost automatic.

Then again, history is just that.

Had Niittymaki emerged this season as merely a decent backup goaltender to incumbent Lightning starter Mike Smith (the role he was expected to play upon his signing this summer), he'd likely be playing the exact same part on Team Finland.

However, a neck injury and inconsistent play from Smith has allowed Niittymaki to emerge as Tampa Bay's starter, a position he'll now have to play his way out of to lose.

With so much of Finland's success riding on the quality of their goal tending, Antero Niittymaki has used his opportunity in Tampa Bay to prove he's their best option in goal.

Miikka Kiprusoff made his case for the starter's job with words, Niittymaki is making it with his play.

The question now is, which one will Team Finland listen to?