John Stevens has leaned heavily on goaltender Martin Biron much of this season, inserting backup Antero Niittymaki only on occasions when the Flyers played back-to-back games.

The Flyers' coach bucked that trend recently, inserting Niittymaki into the starting lineup against Minnesota earlier this month in a game that wasn't a back-to-back situation. He did so again last night as the Flyers lost, 4-1, to Montreal at the Wachovia Center.

Despite Niittymaki's performance - he surrendered four goals on 23 shots - Stevens said his faith in the goalie has not wavered.

"There were some breakdowns there that I thought he had no chance on," Stevens said. "I thought he made some great saves when we needed a save. I think you can look at all four of the goals and really not fault him for anything. It's obvious that we're going to count on Marty a lot, but I'm certainly not unhappy with Niitty."

Although Niittymaki has started two of the Flyers' last four games, he said he is not pressing in an attempt to make an impression.

"I just do my job the same way every day whether I'm playing or I'm not playing," he said. "Obviously, it's nice to get in more games and we'll see what happens."

The first goal Niittymaki let in came on the Canadiens' first power play. From the slot, Saku Koivu passed the puck to Andrei Markov, positioned at the left side of the crease. Markov then passed to Christopher Higgins, who flipped it into the net.

"I think the first one, the guy tried to shoot it and it missed the net and it went straight to the guy and he had an empty net," Niittymaki said.

That put the Flyers down, 1-0, but the second period ultimately did Niittymaki in, and the Flyers.

Niittymaki surrendered three goals on just nine shots that period, including a goal that Andrei Kostitsyn slipped through the five-hole 21 seconds into the period. Mark Streit beat Niittymaki for two more goals by the period's midpoint, including one on a power play.

"I feel bad," Niittymaki said. "You want to stop one of those or at least a couple to keep the game tight and give you a chance to win. But 4-0 is tough to come back."

Captain Jason Smith blamed the goals on the defense allowing too many open shots.

"I think they had some good opportunities and when you give good players wide-open chances around the net, they are going to put the puck in," Smith said. "I think you saw that in their goals."

Take out that second period and it might have been a different story for Niittymaki and the Flyers. Niittymaki stopped six of seven shots in the first period and shut out the Canadiens in the third period, when they recorded seven shots.

"I didn't feel any different [in the second period] and I don't think anybody else felt any different," Niittymaki said. "It just happens to go that way."

Stevens called a timeout following Niittymaki's fourth goal and the goalie said he used the timeout to regroup.

"I tried to go like it was 0-0 and just see what happens," he said.

Still, the Flyers, who have not won two straight games since Nov. 10-12, are searching for consistency, and that includes the men between the pipes.

Niittymaki gave up just one goal on 29 shots when he beat the Wild, 3-1, on Dec. 5. But he followed that with his performance last night, just as the Flyers have followed strong outings with poor ones.

"It's frustrating," Stevens said. "It's not as frustrating as the other losses at home just because I though the effort was there tonight . . . We just have to find ways to win." *