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Sam Donnellon: Biron, Niittymaki both making strong cases to be Flyers' playoff goalie

NIITTY, MARTY, Niitty, Marty. If this is Thursday, Marty Biron must be the Flyers' No. 1 goalie. Wednesday, it was Antero Niittymaki.

NIITTY, MARTY, Niitty, Marty.

If this is Thursday, Marty Biron must be the Flyers' No. 1 goalie.

Wednesday, it was Antero Niittymaki.

Niitty, Marty, Marty, Niitty.

We haven't had this kind of goalie fun since Ron Hextall and Garth Snow shared things here 12 years ago.

Now the Los Angeles Kings' assistant general manager, Hexy watched Biron's latest bid to move from 1B to 1A, stopping 34 shots in the Flyers' 2-0 victory.

"We had our looks," Kings coach Terry Murray said. "We had our opportunities. Marty was the difference tonight."

Yeah, that Terry Murray. Murray was the coach of the Flyers back in 1997, the guy who alternated Snow and Hextall, all the way through until they were swept in four games by Detroit in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

So, he was asked, could that work now? Because with 23 games left in the regular season, the Flyers really don't know who they might start between the pipes in that first playoff game.

"Can it work? Sure, it can," he said. "I look back on one of the greatest series in the history of hockey was the Canada-Russia series in 1972. That's two goaltenders going back and forth on Canada's side. And they ended up winning it."

That eight-game marathon, a crisis moment for Canadians, featured Tony Esposito and Ken Dryden alternating games. A pair of future Hall of Famers, they were united by a common cause, dealt with each other as teammates more than rivals, and well, it worked.

"But the goalies have to be on board with it," said Murray.

Biron has said repeatedly that he is. So has Niitty. The Flyers will average about four games a week until the season ends on Easter Sunday, plenty of work for both men, plenty of opportunity for each to . . . well . . . what?

Can the Flyers win a Stanley Cup playing two goalies? Ah, that's where you might find some dissenting opinion. Flyers coach John Stevens often points out, as he did again last night, that Dominik Hasek started Detroit's playoff run last season, struggled against Nashville and was replaced by Chris Osgood, who backstopped the Red Wings to another Stanley Cup.

But this is different. At least it is right now. Both men have played playoff-caliber hockey of late. Biron flat-out won last night's game, a game in which Stevens admitted, "We had cinder blocks on our feet." Those who watch this team with regularity say they haven't seen Biron move as fluidly side to side all season.

"A lot of times tonight they were throwing one-timers left and right and I was in position before the shot was taken," Biron said. "Part of it had to do with maybe reading the play better, moving quicker, not throwing yourself out too far . . . And some nights the puck just hits you."

Biron was asked about the individual competition with Niittymaki. He rolled into a long answer about the team. Later he said it was the same when he shared the load with Ryan Miller in Buffalo. But that eventually led to Miller becoming the No. 1, and Biron getting traded here.

"It's so demanding out there today with the level of play and the number of pucks from power plays," Murray said. "There's more shots. There's more quality chances coming at you.

"There's a lot more movement of the puck because of the extra ice in the offensive zone. So goaltenders are getting into situations today where they do get fatigued faster than they did years ago, because of the skill coming at you out there on a consistent basis."

So again, where are we headed here? Two goalies, back and forth, in each round of the playoffs?

"I think by that time somebody's going to take the lead role," Stevens said.

And if one does not? Could he play both?

"Oh, sure," he said.

But make no mistake. Biron can like Niittymaki like a long-lost brother. Niitty can be as supportive as he was last night. But every game, every period, every save, is an argument in a very public forum, a body of evidence that must be refreshed and sustained.

Biron is playing like he wants to be there when the playoffs start. Niitty, too. And team talk aside, neither envisions this every-other act playing out come mid-April.

"Playoffs are a different story," Biron said. "You want to get a guy going. You want to get momentum. That's how you win playoff games." *

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