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Return Flight: Niittymaki dominated the Thrashers

He didn’t lose a single one of the 17 games he played against Atlanta in his career.

Atlanta Thrashers v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Throughout the season, we’ll be taking a walk down memory lane whenever the Flyers open their season series against an opponent. We’ll be remembering a game, goal, or highlight Philly created while playing against that particular team. It won’t always be the most notable memory the Orange and Black have against that team, but it’ll be something that Flyers’ fans will want to remember.

Thanks to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s patience and a little bit of luck, the Winnipeg Jets look to be Stanley Cup contenders for the next few seasons. After failing to reach the postseason in five of their first six seasons in Winnipeg and being swept by the Anaheim Ducks in their lone playoff appearance in 2015, the Jets not only recorded their first postseason win in franchise history earlier this year but managed to reach the Western Conference Final before they were eliminated in five games by the Vegas Golden Knights. Before the team moved to Winnipeg in 2011, the Jets were the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that never had the success of the club that is currently in Manitoba.

From 1999 to 2011, the Thrashers took part in 11 NHL seasons. In those 11 seasons, Atlanta won one division title and had one postseason appearance, both of which happened during the 2006-07 season. Since they were swept by the New York Rangers in the opening round of the 2007 NHL postseason, the Thrashers never won a postseason game. To further illustrate how much Atlanta sucked, they only won 41 games or more twice, they only broke 90 points once, and their best goal differential in any season was in 2005-06 when they were plus-6. Besides Ilya Kovalchuk (with his mocking of Sidney Crosby) and providing a knockout of The Original Tom Wilson, the Thrashers didn’t have too much fun.

Patrik Stefan, the team’s first ever draft pick and top selection in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, was a pretty big bust who provided perhaps the most embarrassing moment in NHL history in his final season with the Dallas Stars. Dany Heatley, the team’s second first-round pick, selected with the second overall pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, took part in two seasons with the Thrashers before he was charged with vehicular homicide in the death of his teammate Dan Snyder for an accident in September of 2003. The accident limited Heatley to 31 games in 2003-04 before he was dealt to Ottawa in August of 2005 for Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries. Hossa spent parts of three seasons with Atlanta before being dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a package of real, actual hockey players. With all these things in mind, it’s easy to see how the fact a middling NHL goalie dominated them over the length of his career doesn’t even get mentioned in the legacy of Atlanta’s embarrassment.

Antero Niittymaki, by the numbers, was a pretty run-of-the-mill goalie. Taken 168th overall in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers, Niittymaki went 62-61-23 with a .901 save percentage, 3.01 goals against average, and four shutouts in five seasons in the Orange and Black from 2003 to 2009. He then posted a .909 save percentage in 49 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 2009-10 campaign and an .896 save percentage in 24 games with the San Jose Sharks in 2010-11 before he had to retire due to hip problems. To go along with the fact he was credited with an overtime goal in his time with the Philadelphia Phantoms, Niittymaki will always be remembered by Flyers’ fans for his dominance over the Atlanta Thrashers.

Out of the 234 games he played in the NHL, Niittymaki faced the New Jersey Devils the most, as he appeared in 19 games against the club. Second on that list are the Atlanta Thrashers, who he played against 17 times. In those 17 games, he was 17-0-0 with a .940 save percentage, 1.76 GAA, and one shutout. With four of those wins coming in his season with Tampa Bay, who were in the same division as the Thrashers in 2009-10, Niittymaki was 13-0-0 against the Thrashers as a member of the Flyers. Let’s take a look at the Finnish netminder’s stretch of success that spanned from February 5, 2004 to February 8, 2009.

February 5, 2004 - 5-1 win, 20 saves on 21 shots against
After he allowed the game’s first goal to Serge Aubin with seven ticks left in the opening frame, Niittymaki watched the Flyers pot five straight to help him register his first win against the Thrashers. The goalie stopped three shots spread across Atlanta’s four power plays, as both Simon Gagne and Mark Recchi had a goal and an assist in the win. Todd Fedoruk bloodied up Francis Lessard late in the third period, as Philly improved to 28-12-11 during the 2003-04 campaign with this victory.

December 28, 2005 - 4-3 overtime win, 28 saves on 31 shots against
Despite being awarded five power plays and forcing the Thrashers into 10 giveaways, the Flyers needed Sami Kapanen to beat Michael Garnett 13 seconds into the extra frame to grab the additional point. Niittymaki allowed his last goal against in the win with 11:34 left in the middle frame thanks to an Andy Sutton shorthanded goal. Mike Richards may have not won his scrap against Garnet Exelby, but the Flyers won to improve to 23-8-5 on the 2005-06 season.

March 18, 2006 - 4-2 win, 25 saves on 27 shots against
Niittymaki allowed Hossa to make it a 3-2 game late in the second period on the man advantage, but he stopped the other seven shots Atlanta provided on their nine power-play opportunities of the day to allow the Flyers to pull out a win at Philips Arena. Joni Pitkanen had three helpers and Eric Desjardins had a pair, as the Orange and Black improved to 37-21-10 and started a four-game winning streak.

October 26, 2006 - 3-2 win, 28 saves on 30 shots against
The lowly 1-6-1 hosts beat the 7-1-2 visitors in a somewhat surprising early season outcome. After Vitaly Vishnevski erased the second Flyers’ lead of the game to make it 2-2 with 11:29 left in regulation, the teams endured a scoreless overtime before Thrashers’ head coach Bob Hartley made an interesting decision. After Johan Hedberg stopped 29 of 31 shots through 65 minutes, Hartley decided to put Kari Lehtonen in net for the shootout. Lehtonen allowed goals to Gagne and Peter Forsberg on Philly’s first two attempts, while Slava Kozlov missed for Atlanta’s first chance and Niittymaki stopped Hossa and Kovalchuk for the win. Despite only facing three shootout attempts, this was Lehtonen’s second loss to the Flyers in what turned out to be a 13-game losing streak to the Flyers to start his career.

January 28, 2007 - 2-1 win, 37 saves on 38 shots against
Considering the season the Flyers had for the 2006-07 campaign, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Niittymaki’s most impressive win during this streak was this particular tilt. With the Flyers outshot 38-23 and giving the Thrashers six power plays, Niittymaki stopped all six shots he saw when Atlanta was on the power play to let the game stay tied until late. With 1:02 left in regulation, Jeff Carter rifled a KYLE CALDER feed past Lehtonen’s glove for his second of the game to give the Flyers their first and only lead. The win ended a nine-game losing streak for the Flyers and improved their record to 12-32-5.

February 3, 2007 - 5-2 win, 32 saves on 33 shots against
The lowly Flyers beat the Thrashers for a third time during the 2006-07 regular season thanks to a four-goal third period. Dmitry Afanasenkov, who had a goal and an assist in the win, gave the Flyers a lead just 2:41 in, but Kovalchuk tied the contest just 55 seconds later. Jim Slater gave Atlanta a 2-1 lead early in the second, but a beautiful feed from Forsberg to Gagne and Mike York’s ability to bat a puck in 57 seconds apart early in the final stanza gave Philly a 3-2 lead. Carter provided a shorthanded goal with 5:57 left in regulation thanks to a Kozlov turnover before Alexei Zhitnik finalized the score with an empty-net tally. This was Philly’s second win over the Thrashers in a four-game span, which turned out to be their only two wins in a 15-game stretch from January 4, 2007 to February 8, 2007. In a season that resulted in the Thrashers reaching the postseason the only time the franchise was in Atlanta, the Flyers accrued four of their 22 wins during the dark 2006-07 season against the Thrashers, as Martin Biron backed the club to a 3-2 win on March 15, 2007.

January 8, 2008 - 4-1 win, 27 saves on 28 shots against
After Kovalchuk opened the scoring with his 35th of the season to let the Thrashers end the first period up 1-0, the Orange and Black responded with a four-goal second period to improve their record to 21-15-4. Steve Downie scored his second goal in the NHL in as many games (and was pretty pumped about it) to tie the tilt at one before Carter scored a pair of goals just 13 seconds apart to make it 3-1 with 6:05 left in the second period. Jim Dowd proceeded to set up Scott Hartnell for a shorthanded goal with 0.6 seconds left in the middle frame to give Hartnell a three-point game. With a Riley Cote fight against Chris Thorburn as the only incident of note in the third period, Niittymaki finished the win with nine saves while Atlanta was on the power play.

February 5, 2008 - 3-2 win, 23 saves on 25 shots against
A little less than a month later, Downie scored with 4:29 left in regulation to help the Flyers improve to 30-17-5. Kovalchuk and Eric Boulton erased a pair of one-goal leads Philadelphia gained in the first two periods thanks to power-play tallies before Downie recorded his first game-winning goal in the NHL with under five minutes to play.

March 18, 2008 - 3-2 win, 17 saves on 19 shots against
Thorburn scored 58 seconds in and Kovalchuk scored with 29.9 seconds left, but Philly scored the three goals in between to improve to 36-28-10. Richards pounded home a loose puck in front for his 25th of the season, Carter redirected a Kimmo Timonen shot for a power-play goal with 2.6 seconds left in the second period, and Vinny Prospal potted his 31st of the season on an odd-man rush with Danny Briere to put the Flyers up 3-1 with 11:53 left in regulation. This was probably Niittymaki’s easiest win against the Thrashers as a Flyer, as his 17 saves and 19 shots against were his lowest totals in any of his games against Atlanta and the Flyers produced 47 shots on goal.

October 28, 2008 - 7-0 win, 24-save shutout
Niittymaki’s only shutout against the Thrashers in his career came in the game the Flyers probably needed it least, as they provided one of the 42 games in franchise history where they won by a margin of seven goals or more. Gagne led the way with a four-point game and joined both Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul as the three Flyers to record two-goal games in the blowout. Glen Metropolit finalized the score with his first goal as a Flyer with 2:40 left in regulation. The victory improved Philly to a pretty unique .500 record of 3-3-3.

November 16, 2008 - 4-3 win, 29 saves on 32 shots against
When the squads met again a little less than three weeks later, Niittymaki’s performance was a little more valuable. In a game where each team took 32 shots on goal and was tied 3-3 with 7:57 left in regulation, Niittymaki ended up making one more save than Johan Hedberg to help the Orange and Black secure their second straight win as part of an eventual six-game winning streak. Philly entered the third period up by two goals, but a goal from Bryan Little 35 seconds into the final frame and Kozlov halfway through the third period tied the game at three. Lupul restored the Flyers’ lead just 1:40 after Kozlov’s marker to give the hosts a lead with 6:17 left in regulation. Gagne once again led the charge, as he led Philadelphia with a three-point performance.

January 21, 2009 - 5-3 win, 28 saves on 31 shots against
Knuble provided the game-winning tally with 7:48 left in regulation and added on an empty-netter in a win where the teams combined for 58 penalty minutes. Thanks to an incredible diving redirection by Darroll Powe and a goal from Randy Jones, the Flyers held a 3-0 lead as the third period started. Eric Perrin, Kovalchuk, and Thorburn each scored in a span of 6:07 to tie the game with 9:11 left in regulation. Knuble put home a rebound created from his original shot to give the Flyers a lead they’d never relinquish. The win also featured a trio of bouts, as Cote fought Eric Boulton, Arron Asham fought Thorburn, and Asham fought Boris Valabik.

February 8, 2009 - 3-2 win, 29 saves on 31 shots against
A pair of Carter goals and a marker from Lupul gave the Orange and Black a 3-0 lead they’d never lose, as Kovalchuk and Kozlov potted power-play goals in the final 16 minutes in a 3-2 win. The fact Niittymaki allowed two of the three power-play goals he’d ever give up to Atlanta in the game didn’t matter, as the win put the Flyers at 28-15-9 after their 52nd game of the season. Cote and Boulton dropped the gloves yet again in Niittymaki’s final win over the Thrashers as a Flyer.

Overall, the Flyers took it to the Thrashers on a regular basis. Philly played the Thrashers 44 times when the franchise was in Atlanta and only lost in regulation eight times to finish with an overall record of 30-8-3-3. With the help of Niittymaki’s dominance, the Orange and Black won 14 straight against the Thrashers from December 28, 2005 to February 8, 2009 and went 17-0-1 when going back to February 2, 2004. Niittymaki turned out to be the key ingredient to the Flyers’ dominance over the former Southeast Division opponent, as the club finished 1-5-2 in their final eight games against the Thrashers after the goalie left and before the team moved to Winnipeg.

*Stats via Hockey-Reference and NHL.com

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