Philadelphia slumped before the two-week layoff, going 3-5-1 to fall three points behind the New York Rangers for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Two of the losses came by scores of 6-0 to Tampa Bay on Jan. 28 and 5-0 at Montreal on Feb. 5. In between those defeats was a 4-3 overtime loss to the Rangers, allowing New York to take over first place.
While the Flyers had plenty of time off to rest and recuperate, their injury problems have gotten worse.
Center Keith Primeau announced Tuesday he will sit out the season to recover from post-concussion symptoms, the result of a hit by Montreal’s Alexander Perezhogin four months ago. The Flyers will also be without Simon Gagne, their leading scorer, for as long as two weeks after he suffered a bone bruise during Canada’s quarterfinal loss to Russia on Saturday.
The Flyers will have center Peter Forsberg back in the lineup after he missed the last five games before the break and seven of the previous nine with a groin injury. Forsberg played for the gold-medal winning Swedish team and recorded six assists in six games. He will be returning from celebrating the victory in Sweden on Monday in his homeland.
Niittymaki played well when Esche missed five weeks with a groin injury in late December and early January, and was outstanding for Finland during the Olympics, posting three shutouts and a 1.34 goals-against average to help lead the Finns to the silver medal.
“Let’s see how he looks when he comes back over here. This is a different game over here,” Hitchcock said of Niittymaki. “He’s an up-and-coming goaltender. He’s a first-year player and the thing I value most is that this is just another notch of experience to help him become better.”
New Jersey has gone 14-4-1 in 2006 to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race, a stretch that moved the Devils into seventh place and has them pushing Tampa Bay for sixth. New Jersey won its first eight home games during that span before falling 2-1 to the New York Islanders on Feb. 11.
“We didn’t play the way we’ve been playing, but give them credit,” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. “They played well. They didn’t take bad penalties.”
New Jersey resumes play knowing that team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello will coach the team for the rest of the season. Lamoriello, also the team’s president and general manager, informed players of his decision last Wednesday.
Lamoriello replaced the fired Larry Robinson on Dec. 19 and has gone 16-9-1.
Brodeur has also played a major role in the turnaround. He went 14-14-3 with a 2.95 GAA before the new year, but has played every game in 2006 and posted a 1.92 GAA and five shutouts.