ST. PAUL, MINN. - Before last night, the only times Antero Niittymaki played in net were when the Flyers had consecutive games, or when Marty Biron was pulled.
Again, until last night.
Niittymaki saw his first action that didn't have one of those conditions. John Stevens swore it did not signal a change in how he would use Biron as a starter.
But - well, it was a change in predictable behavior - it worked.
"[Niittymaki] went into Ottawa and played well and he's played very well," Stevens said. "I had this trip in mind and I thought with the travel, it would be good to give them each a game.
"[Biron] has been in the net a lot, giving him a night off would be good mentally as well as physically. It's nothing more than split up the trip because of the travel."
It was a good move. Niittymaki was solid and held off the Wild despite a parade of Flyers to the penalty box that left his team shorthanded eight times - including two extended five-on-threes - and earned a 3-1 win.
Niittymaki stopped 10 shots in the first period while the Flyers built a 2-0 lead on goals from Scottie Upshall and Jeff Carter.
Braydon Coburn added an insurance goal early in the third period, his first goal of the year, for the Flyers' first-ever win in the Xcel Energy Center.
"It was nice," Niittymaki said. "[Stevens] told me a couple of days before and I had a chance to practice for a little while and mentally get ready for this game. It worked out pretty well."
Stevens was pleased with both the penalty-killing and his goalie.
"I think they go hand in hand," he said. "To kill that much time five-on-three in one hockey game is remarkable. The guys had a good understanding of taking away their first option.
"They kept changing roles and guys up top, but when we really needed [Niittymaki] to make a save he was tremendous."
It was a tough way to get a win with the Flyers being flagged repeatedly, and for some very questionable calls, like a roughing penalty on Daniel Briere when he was knocked down in front of the Wild net.
"I asked [the referee] who was I roughing with," he said. "Did I rough the ice when I fell down? It was kind of a weird call early on. But the good thing was we were able to get our energy from killing them. Sometimes you get it from a big save, or a big power play, or a big goal.
"Tonight we got our energy from the big kills, the two five-on-threes. Anytime you kill a five-on-three it's like scoring a goal and we had two of them tonight. That was huge."
The win puts the Flyers in a three-way tie for first in the Atlantic Division with New Jersey and the Rangers.
Upshall got the Flyers on the board after they killed the first five-on-three. Mike Richards jumped out of the penalty box and came down two-on-one but hit the post.
The rush generated a run at the Minnesota net and a flurry of chances, the final of which Upshall managed to get past Niklas Backstrom for a 1-0 lead.
"That was the whole game right there," Upshall said. "A big kill that early in the game. There were a couple of bad calls in the game where we had to go down five-on-three in the first 2 minutes of the game, that's tough. [Niittymaki was] spectacular in the net for us."
Upshall figured big in the next goal as well. Winning a puck battle in a corner, he got the puck up the wall to Denis Tolpeko, who took a shot on net. Carter was in front when Backstrom lost control of the rebound and tucked it in, giving the Flyers a 2-0 lead.
"It was a great play by [Tolpeko]," Carter said. "They had a good cycle going and I just went to the net. I don't know where their d-men went. I was all alone and just put it in."
Minnesota went back on the power play in the opening minute of the second period, and this time the Wild scored. Niittymaki had no chance on the tip Pavol Demitra made on Brian Rolston's point shot that cut the lead to 2-1.
The Flyers went into the final period in position to win. Going into last night, they were 12-0-0 when leading after two periods.
Coburn improved that stat when he scored his first of the year at 4 minutes, 1 second of the period. During a four-on-four play, Coburn took a shot from just outside the Minnesota blue line and blew the puck over Backstrom's glove.
"I was trying to get it one net," said Coburn. "I was coming down, they had two guys back and I was just trying to get it on net. I was lucky it went in.
"We're just trying to build some consistency. I know we've been playing well on the road. We've just got to that consistency at home." *