SUNRISE, Fla. – There is something to be said about being in South Florida in late December. It's warm and sunny and, well, it's not exactly a winter wonderland.
But it's just not a good place for a hockey game, either. A hot arena doesn't make for a fast-paced game between teams with big guys skating on soft ice and wearing lots of heavy padding.
"It's always the same thing," Flyers forward Daniel Briere said. "I feel bad for the players that play here, guys like [Olli] Jokinen, [Nathan] Horton, [Stephen] Weiss and even [Jay] Bouwmeester. Good skaters.
"Every time I tried to handle the puck, you had no clue where it was going. It was bad and it hurts the game. This was one of the worst I've seen."
Or most anybody else who either sat in the stands or tuned in on television. But it was a lot worse for the Florida Panthers, who handled the situation a little better, outshooting the Flyers, 38-20, only to lose, 1-0, at Bank Atlantic Center yesterday.
It was the Flyers' third straight win after enduring a six-game skid. They return to the Northeast for a game Friday against New Jersey in Newark, where it should be colder.
After a plodding, painful, 51 minutes, Derian Hatcher finally broke the silence, jumping in on a rush and converting a deflected shot from Stefan Ruzicka to break the scoreless tie at 9:14 of the final period.
"It's always nice to score," Hatcher said. "Their [defenseman] was holding the line and I thought it might be a 2-on-1. It turned out to be a 2-on-2 and [Ruzicka] made a nice play and the puck bounced right on my stick there.
"The ice was horrible. It was hot out there and by far and away it was not our best game. We know that, and the game in general I don't think was a great hockey game, either.
"But we'll absolutely take it. There are other games where maybe we deserved a better fate, but that's the way the season works."
The Flyers managed just 11 shots through two periods and three power plays.
Florida was not much better, but it didn't have to be. If it weren't for Antero Niittymaki, it might have been a Florida blowout.
There have not been many games this season where the goalie saved the team, but this was one.
Niittymaki hadn't played since the Dec. 16 loss in New Jersey, but it didn't show. He was sharp and confident in the first period while the team in front of him was slow and getting outplayed.
It was Niittymaki's third career shutout and the first in 85 appearances. His last shutout was Jan. 2, 2006, in Boston.
"They had some good shots early in the game, but after that they were just sort of throwing pucks on net," Niittymaki said. "Halfway through the game, we started playing a whole lot better.
"It's not going to be easy. It was hot in there and [Saturday] in Tampa was a tough game, too. We knew it wasn't going to be easy. We had a couple of good bounces."
Niittymaki made 14 saves in the first period alone, including a power-play glove save on Weiss. Saturday, the game-breaker for Tampa Bay was the first period penalty shot that Joffrey Lupul scored to put the Flyers on top.
The Panthers had the same opportunity yesterday when Radek Dvorak was awarded one when Rory Fitzpatrick hooked him after he got in on the net alone.
It was a marginal call at best, but Niittymaki stayed out high and forced Dvorak to try and beat him with a backhand shot that the goalie got with his blocker.
It was the third time this year that the Flyers have stopped a penalty shot; the first two were on Marty Biron. The Flyers record on penalty shots is a whole lot better than what they do in shootouts.
They have stopped 13 of the last 14 since 1995.
The play was no better for the Flyers for most of the period. They continued to be outshot and by a lot. Niittymaki stayed solid and the game remained tied at nil. The Flyers started to come on in the final 5 minutes of the second, but the power play was poor and the Panthers' shot advantage remained lopsided at 26-11.
"It was just a tight game," said Mike Knuble. "The key offensively was not to get frustrated. The power play wasn't going, we couldn't get anything going on the power play and that's been rare for us. On the flip side, the penalty killing was awesome and they didn't have anything going on the power play.
"The game came down to one shot and [Hatcher] gets it."
But the real difference was Niittymaki.
"I thought he was outstanding and he made some great saves throughout the hockey game," said coach John Stevens. "I couldn't be happier for him. He's a big part of our team, goaltending is a big part of our team, and [Niittymaki and Biron] both deserve a lot of credit for the success we've had all year." *