Ron Hextall vs. Garth Snow. John Vanbiesbrouck vs. Brian Boucher. Roman Cechmanek vs. Brian Boucher. Robert Esche vs. Antero Niittymaki. All of this has happened before, and it's happening again for the Philadelphia Flyers; a franchise for whom goaltending controversies are as ingrained in its traditions as orange, black and 34 years of playoff disappointment.
It wasn't necessarily supposed to be like this, as the team acquired Martin Biron and he started 59 games and all 17 of the Flyers' postseason games through the Eastern Conference finals last season.
This season, he's started 29 to Niittymaki's 20, but only has one start since Jan. 16. In more limited action, Niittymaki (11-4-4, 2.59 GAA, .917 save percentage) has the better numbers than Biron this season (15-10-5, 2.89, .905).
In partnership with NBC Sports Philadelphia
He's earned his playing time from Coach John Stevens. Then again, a lack of confidence in Antero Niittymaki as a starting goaltender was one of the reasons the Flyers traded for Biron in the first place.
Philadelphia is one of several teams facing either a blessing of riches or a growing headache as two goalies battle it out for playing time. One Flyers beat writer believes moving Biron could be essential for addressing the team's other lineup needs.
Anthony SanFilippo of the DelCo Times explains what's at stake for the Flyers in goal:
Will Stevens stick with Niittymaki, who has started four of the last five games? Or will he go back to Biron, who will have started once in 20 days by game time? If it's Biron, it might not be the right choice solely based on rust, but at least it would say that Stevens still thinks he's the go-to goalie.
If it's Niittymaki, it may suggest the team is headed in another direction. If that's the case, is it possible Biron, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, could be part of a trade-deadline deal?
Clearing his salary would go a long way to being able to add the big-ticket, physical defenseman they so badly need (rumors out of Anaheim have Chris Pronger on the trading block). If that's the case and the Niittymaki experiment doesn't work, there's a good crop of unrestricted goalies that will be available in the summer, including both Boston netminders (Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez), as well as unheralded Nicklas Backstrom in Minnesota.
The Flyers have a lot of options. They could stay the course, or they can gamble and get creative. They have three weeks to decide.
("Unheralded" Nicklas Backstrom? Perhaps so, when writers chronically misspell "Niklas.")
Both Biron and Niittymaki are unrestricted this summer, which is a remarkable position for the Flyers. They can keep one, keep both or literally hit the reset button and bring in two completely different keepers. (We officially start the Tim Thomas/Scott Clemmensen campaign.) They'll have a little more cap room when Derian Hatcher comes off the books, too.
But the focus should still be on this season for a team that was a conference finals bridesmaid and that's currently sixth in a competitive conference. If the team somehow deals Biron before the deadline -- and keep in mind that NHLSCAP has him with a no-trade clause as of Jan. 17 -- it's nuts: Niittymaki has yet to prove he's an NHL starter in the regular season, let alone the playoffs.
It's reminiscent of what the Capitals went through earlier this season -- dance with Brent Johnson, marry Jose Theodore, because he's the guy you really believe gives you a chance at the Cup in the postseason.
It's hard to figure out of this current Flyers goaltending situation is a blessing or a curse.
For some teams, the distinction is clear: The Boston Bruins are blessed with three NHL-level goalies; the Chicago Blackhawks, salary cap issues be damned, aren't hurting with Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet; the Nashville Predators can roll with Pekka Rinne and still have Dan Ellis ready to move back into the crease if the need arises.
But are the Ducks really blessed to have a $6-million man in J.S. Giguere getting outclassed by Jonas Hiller?
The Flyers' situation is closer to that of the Ducks: It's a headache, because Biron looked like a concrete starter by the end of the postseason and because the other guy isn't exactly battle tested.
Maybe it'll work itself out. But this is the Flyers we're talking about here. There's something almost quaint about yet another round of "Who Wants To Be a Starting Goalie?"