ATLANTA - Antero Niittymaki would like the world to believe that he doesn't see anything all that special in playing against fellow Finnish goalie Kari Lehtonen.

"You guys keep asking me that after every game," Niittymaki said last night after the Flyers' 3-2 win over the Atlanta Thrasher in Philips Arena.

"I don't think if he's playing. There's just something about this building. I like to play here. And when you're playing some teams, you get the good bounces.

"You could see that after we scored the third goal, they hit the post right after, and that's the way it is. It's really hard to explain."

Maybe. But it was not hard to explain to Flyers coach John Stevens, who is aware enough of what happens when Niittymaki, a sixth-round pick in 1998, plays against Lehtonen, the second overall pick in the 2002 NHL draft.

Stevens knew it enough not to play Marty Biron, even though Biron had logged a shutout against Anaheim at home Saturday night.

Stevens has seen this since his Phantoms, backstopped by Niittymaki, swept the Chicago Wolves, with Lehtonen in the nets, in the 2005 Calder Cup finals.

When Niittymaki was preparing to face Lehtonen for the first time before that series, he said something similar to what he said last night.

"They say he's the best young goalie in the world," was the way Niittymaki put it then. "I don't know. We'll see."

Since coming to the NHL, Niittymaki is 8-0 against the Thrashers and has allowed only 13 goals.

Niittymaki, from Turku, Finland, only alludes to the fact that Lehtonen, from Helsinki, has been getting all the accolades and been more highly regarded throughout their careers.

Niittymaki was not picked for the 2006 Olympics until after Lehtonen was injured and unable to play. The Flyers goalie pooh-poohed that, too, even after winning the MVP of the tournament and a silver medal in Turin, Italy.

He's tried to downplay the rivalry ever since. But when pressed, he is forced into a grin and a tiny bit of honesty. Like this: "It's always nice to play against a Finnish goalie, a countryman. Maybe it gives you a little extra. You don't want to lose to a countryman."

He didn't last night, and he hasn't yet.

With 23 saves and a game-winner with 4:29 left by Steve Downie, the Flyers broke a third-period standoff and notched another two points. They remain in first place in the Atlantic Division and pulled to within three points of Ottawa for the Eastern Conference lead.

Scott Hartnell got a puck off the wall and managed to tip it out front to Downie, who blasted it home.

"I was just trying to get as much as I could on it," said Downie, who hadn't scored in six games.

The Flyers also got two power-play goals, one from Mike Knuble and another from Mike Richards. Richards' goal came after the momentum had tipped away from the Flyers following a strong start.

"We came out strong," Richards said. "We were playing really well in the first and then slowed down in the second. I thought [Atlanta] handled most of the play in the third period, but we were resilient and found a way to win.

"You're not always going to have your legs in a hockey game, but you've got to find a way to win, and we did tonight."

The first period was all Flyers. They outskated and outshot (16-11) Atlanta, and Knuble kept his goal streak going.

Tipping a Richards point shot on the power play 1:39 into the game, Knuble scored his fourth goal in two games and put the Flyers up.

It was his 20th goal of the season, marking the fifth straight season he has scored 20 or more goals.

"It is a good run," Knuble said. "You just have to keep your head down, keep trying to go to the net. You just have to get there with your stick on the ice and hopefully the puck is going to keep on hitting it."

Niittymaki was sharp, making a key pad stop on Marian Hossa in the last 2 minutes of the period.

Ilya Kovalchuk tied the game 8:56 into the second when he took a long pass in full stride and blew past Randy Jones, skated in on Niittymaki and rifled the puck past the goalie.

But Niclas Havelid was called for interference right after the goal and Richards restored the Flyers' lead, 2-1. Richards fired a low shot from just above the right faceoff circle, sending the puck under Lehtonen's leg pad.

"I just tried to get it by that first guy, and usually Mike or Danny [Briere] are there to tip it in,'' Richards said. "I don't know how the puck went in. I think it kind of went under his pad. I think our line is playing well right now just like we are doing on the power play. We are trying to keep it simple and get pucks to the net as much as possible."

Eric Boulton tied the game at 2-2 18:38 into the second when he came out from behind the net, spun toward the goal and fired a shot that beat Niittymaki.

Tonight against Washington, Stevens will go back to Biron. But he knew what he was doing in setting the rotation.

"There was a lot of criticism,'' Stevens said. "Well, maybe not criticism; [Biron] played so well [against Anaheim], but we kind of targeted this game for [Niittymaki]. He seems to play his best games against Atlanta. He elevates his game and he was instrumental in the win tonight. I thought he was terrific." *