If Marty Biron is worried, he isn't letting on.

And if Antero Niittymaki is thinking that maybe he's getting another crack at being the No. 1 goaltender, well, he's downplaying that as well.

Read into it what you will, but when the Flyers visit the New York Rangers tonight, Niittymaki will be making his third straight start.

"It's just an opportunity to play more, that's pretty much it," Niittymaki said yesterday. "I've been saying all year that it's 82 games and I'm going to get my share of games, and right now I'm playing a little bit more. It's good for me, and hopefully I can keep going and we can get two points tomorrow."

Playing the hot hand could be all it is and all it will amount to. But that remains to be seen. For now, the jobs of starter and backup seem to have switched positions.

For Biron, this has to be somewhat unnerving. He has had this happen twice before in Buffalo. He lost out to both Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller. Last season, he was traded to the Flyers, given a new contract and named the No. 1 goalie.

Biron started hot, then went on and off. While he hasn't been bad lately, he hasn't been great, either. Niittymaki, meanwhile, battled back from offseason hip surgery and practiced and played his way back into form. He has won his last three starts, including back-to-back games in Toronto and Atlanta.

"It's part of a season," said Biron, who has played 31 games to Niittymaki's 12. "Things happen and I see that Niittymaki has been playing really well and we've gotten some great results. It's part of the job for a goalie. Things go that way sometimes. That's the way it is.

"I understand the game. I've been in it long enough. I know what I have to do and that's all I can focus on," he said. "I like challenges. I like to be pushed. I've also always been a guy who's put a lot of emphasis on the team and what it needs to do. So, it all comes together where I'm at and where my focus is at and how the team is going to benefit from it all."

The team is also going to benefit from having most of its key injured players back in the lineup, including Simon Gagne, who has missed the last 26 games with a concussion and neck injury.

Jason Smith, Scottie Upshall and Sami Kapanen also will be back.

Coach John Stevens recognizes that this month is a critical point of the season and that, with the Atlantic Division being as tight as it is, every two points count like a mountain of gold. So if playing the hot goalie gives his team an edge, that's where he is going.

"Niittymaki just kind of got into the net and got on a hot streak," Stevens said. "He's looked confident. He's played great hockey. He's just a hot goalie right now and I just decided to ride him a little longer, that's all.

"This is by no means a sign that we've lost confidence in [Biron]. Maybe I'm just a little superstitious, but Niittymaki is hot right now. He's as sharp as I've ever seen him. He's waited patiently and worked hard on his game to get in the net. I think it's my job as a coach to reward a player when their play excels.

"He's winning hockey games for us just as Marty has," Stevens said. "Our goaltending has been great coming out of the break and Marty will get back in over the weekend here. I'm just riding the hot horse now." *