JOHN STEVENS' official position has been, and remains, that he has no goalie controversy. You play the better player, he reasoned over and over again, you give your team its best chance to win.
Goalie. Defenseman. Center. Position is irrelevant.
You play the player who gives your team its best chance to win.
But what if you aren't sure which player that is? What if the answer is not A or B, but none of the above? What then? A trade?
The trade deadline is March 4, weeks away, so no. Martin Biron has certainly had spells like the one that led to his seat on the Flyers' bench, and has recovered nicely. He is, after all, 31, with 11 years of NHL experience.
And Antero Niittymaki has been the flavor of the month before, and played himself right back to the spot he has occupied for much of this season and last. So, no, last night's 5-2 loss to the lowly Ottawa Senators will not precipitate the kind of midseason crisis that has so often been a part of this team's chronology.
The Flyers, after all, had won all four points at stake over the weekend, beat the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins and the Atlanta Thrashers on consecutive days. They hold the fourth spot in the conference standings and have played fewer games than most of the teams in the hunt. There are 29 games remaining.
Still, facing a team playing for the second night in a row, a team with a losing record and a new coach, this should have been a walk. And despite Stevens' contention to the contrary - "I actually thought we worked hard tonight," he said - the Flyers lacked urgency for much of the first two periods . . . and it cost them.
They missed the net a lot in the first two periods, saw pucks plop over their sticks along the boards and at midice. Niittymaki knocked in Ottawa's first goal late in the first period after a post temporarily saved him, and allowed their third with 13.8 seconds left in the second with a sloppy overplay that he called "pretty embarrassing."
"It was my bad," he said. "I thought he was going shoot it. And I just went down. And I couldn't really get there."
Niittymaki also said, "I just wasn't really sharp tonight . . . "
Did it cost him? That probably will be determined over the weekend, when the Flyers play the Islanders and Rangers on consecutive days. Asked if both goalies would play, Stevens said, "A good chance, yeah."
Niittymaki had won five of six games entering last night's game with stats that resembled those he put up as Finland's Olympic goalie in 2006. Then, as was the case recently, his acrobatics covered up mistakes and bought his team time, but last night he simply accelerated its demise. He faced 23 shots, and after the Flyers fell behind, 2-0, midway through the second period, several came after the Flyers peppered Ottawa's rookie goaltender Brian Elliott. By the end, Elliott faced 36 shots, but for the last half of the game, the Flyers always trailed by two goals. Once the Flyers finally broke through on Darroll Powe's goal 8 minutes into the third period, Ottawa countered 2 minutes later on another soft goal to make it 4-1, this one from just inside the blue line.
"If you're down two or three goals, you have take some chances to try to tie the game," Niittymaki said. "And then the two-on-ones, three-on-twos happen, and you just have to be ready for those. It just wasn't my night. I wasn't ready for those. Especially those couple of extra ones at the end there."
Why do goalies go hot and cold? There are so many ways and means. Like baseball pitchers and quarterbacks, their success and failure is determined by inches and milliseconds. A tired body, a tired mind, an illness like the flu Biron contracted in mid-December, when his solid season first began to erode.
Biron missed 2 weeks with the flu, and re-entered the net during a stretch where the Flyers, as a team, were working things out. After allowing five goals in a loss to Chicago on Dec. 26, Biron actually won four of his next five starts.
He lost his next four and gave up three goals in a period against Boston last Saturday, leading Stevens to insert Niittymaki. The Finn played as if it were the Olympics the rest of the way, especially in the third period, when the Flyers clung to a 3-3 tie. They won in overtime, of course, and the next day Niittymaki kept his perfect record intact against Atlanta with a 3-2 victory.
And then came last night. A night so awful that Flyers fans booed the goalie who had saved their team just 4 days before. He should have been fresh last night. The Flyers should have possessed more jump. But it's Feb. 13 today and we are miles away from any panic here.
Provided at least one of their goalies finds himself.
The sooner, the better.
Otherwise, there will be a controversy about the goalie. And it will be this:
They won't really have one. *
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