Tuesday, February 10, 2004 Updated: February 15, 3:02 AM ET
Can you hear Clarke second-guessing?
By Rob Parent Special to ESPN.com
The new Philadelphia Flyers goaltender was fabulous Tuesday night. Darting back and forth across the crease repeatedly to keep the New Jersey Devils at bay. Kicking like a youngster, diving like a diva, stopping and smothering everything that came his way.
So you could almost see that biggest of Flyers fans in a foreign land, one Bob Clarke, sitting in a casino sports bar half a country and another 1,000 desert miles away, sinking down low in his seat. You'd think he'd be happy wrapping up those boring NHL general managers meetings out in the Las Vegas suburbs watching from afar as his team dispatched its nearest rivals by the surprising score of 4-1.
But then, maybe you didn't hear the question Clarke could have repeated to himself...
"Why did I make that trade again?"
See, as Clarke eventually would, that this flashy Flyers goalie didn't come from Phoenix, but rather from Finland, and most recently from right across the South Philadelphia parking lot.
He's Antero Niittymaki, a regular for the AHL-affiliate Phantoms in just his second professional season, putting on an All-Star caliber show in this huge game against those rival ruffians from up the Turnpike.
He stopped 35 shots en route to beating the best goalie in the world in Martin Brodeur, while the latest goalie in a long line of Flyers postseason sacrifices sat in admiration on the bench.
That's Sean Burke, one of a baker's dozen (and then some) of Flyers goalies of the past decade, having served in a brief role as first-round playoff scapegoat in goal for Philly in 1998. Back again for another go-round while one of his best friends, anointed starter Robert Esche, recovers from a sprained knee and after Clarke had forced vertigo-ridden goalie Jeff Hackett to take early retirement Monday night.
That done, Clarke signed off on a trade that brought Burke back to Philadelphia along with young forward Branko Radivojevic and goony prospect Ben Eager. Off to Phoenix then was Mike Comrie, a heralded midseason acquisition from Edmonton revealed six weeks later as merely a Clarke bargaining chip, now out West where he belongs.
Naturally, many a Philadelphia talk show fan wasn't so crazy about Comrie's itinerary, especially since Burke was last seen there overseeing a five-game loss to the Buffalo Sabres in a 1998 first-round playoff series. And wasn't he considered old then?
Actually, Burke countered, "I think I'm a better goaltender now."
"Things are quite a bit different [now]," he said. "I think I'm in a different state of mind and a different time of my life than I was then. I came in here [then] not feeling the best about my game or about some of the things happening off the ice. I'd been traded already that year, and I didn't feel like hockey was the most important thing at the time.
"But right now, at this stage of my career, there's nothing I'm enjoying more than just focusing on my game and helping this team win."
For his first act of cavalry-ism, Burke rides the bench and watches flashbacks from the past take place in a Finnish goalie who apparently has a real future.
"I think every player wants to be here," Niittymaki said. "But I know they have good goalies. So I don't think about that too much. I just take it day to day."
He's young, but Niittymaki is savvy enough to realize he can't have much of a successful impact on the immediate playoff futures for the Flyers. But then, how could he?
He's a Flyers goalie for heaven's sake. When's the last time one of them won anything?
That kid's [Antero Niittymaki] been unbelievable. He's shown so much poise and so much confidence. ... He's taken this opportunity and really made the best of it. ”
— Jeremy Roenick
Since the 1993-94 season, 14 different players have found the Flyers' goal crease to not be especially conducive to spring success. Little wonder why Clarke is said to have a real blind spot for that facet of this management game he otherwise plays in the black.
But Clarke also couldn't see wisdom in entrusting a few weeks of goaltending chores to a kid who would be playing his third career NHL game Tuesday against the Devils.
So out went Comrie and in came Burke, eventually to be by the side of his old Phoenix teammate Esche, who still worships the icy ground Burke walks on. The two have long proclaimed themselves as partners, though Esche, probably out until the end of February with the sprained left knee, will be the go-to goalie for the playoffs, according to coach Ken Hitchcock.
At least, that's the plan.
"I don't know if you can really say that now because Sean could come here and right away be awesome," Esche said. "It is a team sport, but a lot of people want to make it all [about whether] you're a playoff goalie. I mean, nobody is going to have confidence in me being a playoff goalie and nobody is going to have confidence in [Burke], because the last time he won much of anything then was his rookie year.
"But Sean is the consummate professional. He doesn't let anything bother him."
True to his friend's word, Burke was calm, cool and seemingly enjoying every moment sitting on that bench and watching Niittymaki go to work Tuesday. Perhaps he was remembering what it was like at that age ... a rookie playing for the Devils 16 years ago ... notching the only playoff victories he'd ever achieve.
So far, anyway. Who's to say it can't happen again? As Niittymaki showed, any miracle's possible.
"He played great. He was very sharp, very confident out there." Burke said of Niittymaki. "I think there are a lot of really good goaltenders around. Every team has depth at that position now, and at the minors as well. The key is to be consistent and to go out every night and do the job."
Since Esche went down Feb . 2, Niittymaki has started and won three games, giving up one goal in each game and cultivating a .961 saves percentage in the process. That's good at any age, no matter what the trading circumstances are.
"That kid's been unbelievable," said Jeremy Roenick. "He's shown so much poise and so much confidence. He's really come in here and made a name for himself. He's taken this opportunity and really made the best of it."
Forgive Niittymaki if his personal career timing seems a little off, though. For the Flyers, however, it has been great.
"What that is telling us and the world is that Philadelphia has some really good goaltending for the future," Hitchcock said. "With Sean ... people who say he hasn't played in the NHL playoffs, well, he's played in a lot of one-game, winner-take-all performances [in international competitions]. He knows pressure, and he's a great mentor for us with his play and his personality, but we also know where the future is. Niittymaki has not hurt his case for the future at all."
That's great, but Clarke has more pressing gambits to tend to. A labor war is on the Eastern horizon and all bets are off after this season. So for Clarke and a veteran-laden Flyers team, the future is now.
In that respect, how much of a gamble can yet another goalie trade be?
Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.