PHILADELPHIA — Antero Niittymaki made a perfect save in the final seconds to remain unbeaten against Atlanta.
Niittymaki smothered Ilya Kovalchuk’s last-second attempt at a game-tying goal, dropping the Thrashers forward to his knees in disbelief and preserving Philadelphia’s sorely-needed victory.
Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Vaclav Prospal scored goals and the Flyers kept their hold on the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference in a 3-2 win over the Thrashers on Tuesday night.
"Anything at this point of the year, a big goal, a big save, we definitely can feed off it," Carter said.
No stop came bigger than the one Niittymaki made in the final ticks of the clock. Kovalchuk scored his 50th goal of the season with 30 seconds left, leaving the Flyers with a sense of dread about blowing yet another game in the waning moments.
Kovalchuk nearly made it happen with a wrist shot from the high slot, but Niittymaki made the tough save.
Kovalchuk fell to his knees, then sprawled his body on the ice as the Flyers mobbed each other around him in celebration.
"Most of the time I score those kind of goals," Kovalchuk said.
Carter and Richards were among the Flyers who called it the save of the year. Niittymaki, who made 17 saves, said it was simply another stop and that he "just reacted."
"As soon as he wound up and the puck made it through to him I had already jumped and celebrated," Thrashers forward Chris Thorburn said. "Maybe I jinxed him, but he’s done it so many times for us.
Niittymaki allowed Thorburn’s goal 58 seconds into the game, but was near flawless in helping the Flyers to their 10th straight series win against the Thrashers. The Flyers haven’t lost to Atlanta since November 2005 and Niittymaki improved to 9-0 against the Thrashers.
"We had a simple game plan, get pucks in deep, allow the pucks to the net and I really thought it paid off," coach John Stevens said.
The slumping Flyers desperately needed this win to stay in the playoff chase with only eight games left in the season.
They took a season-high 47 shots.
They had lost four straight, including a 7-1 defeat at Pittsburgh on Sunday, that caused general manager Paul Holmgren to blast their effort and team chairman Ed Snider expressed concern over their collapse.
Stevens even ordered the equipment manager to change all the player’s stalls in the locker room of their practice facility to shake everything up.
For one game at least, the criticisms must have inspired the Flyers.
They got off to yet another slow start, though, when Thorburn slid the puck past for Niittymaki for an easy goal and a 1-0 lead. One of the knocks Holmgren leveled against Stevens was the Flyers sometimes are not prepared at the start of games and this was the latest example.
Unlike their thrashing at Pittsburgh, the Flyers rallied in this one.
The Flyers attacked Kari Lehtonen with a flurry of shots and Richards finally got the puck through for his 25th goal and tied the game 7 minutes into the first period.
The Flyers caught a break with 3 seconds left in the period when Kimmo Timonen’s slapper just inside the blue line fired off Carter’s skate and shot through Lehtonen’s legs to make it 2-1. Carter’s power-play goal was his 28th of the season.
Prospal scored his 31st goal off a give-and-go from Danny Briere in the third, which turned out to be a huge goal.
The Flyers, who blew a 3-0 lead to Toronto last week in the third period, had another scare when Kovalchuk made it 3-2 with 30 seconds remaining. The rowdy crowd was instantly hushed, but Philly hung on for the dramatic win thanks to one more fantastic save.
"We had some trouble winning games a couple of times this year, but we got the job done tonight," Niittymaki said.