ATLANTA - For a team that always seems to be courting controversy, the Philadelphia Flyers will hit the All-Star break running on all cylinders.
Antero Niittymaki had 20 saves in the second start of his NHL career, helping the Flyers beat the Atlanta Thrashers 5-1 Thursday night.
Simon Gagne, Mark Recchi, Sami Kapanen and Tony Amonte scored in the second period for the Flyers, 5-0-1 in their last six road games.
“I think everybody is pretty excited about how we’re playing right now,” Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock said. “The guys really deserve time off right now, they’re looking forward to it, but I think there’s a real excitement for what the last run is going to be like here.”
Serge Aubin had a goal for the Thrashers, winless in eight games. Ilya Kovalchuk, voted a starter in Sunday’s All-Star game, was benched in the second period after his turnover led to Gagne’s goal.
“The only way to keep players accountable is ice time,” Atlanta coach Bob Hartley said. “Ice time is the biggest reward and sometimes it’s the biggest punishment.”
The Flyers maintained their grip on first overall in the Eastern Conference. They are 8-2-1-0 in their last 11 games.
“I just think we got back to our roots,” Jeremy Roenick said. “In the last 25 games, this is really where you have to knuckle down. This is where teams start making a push. So we’ve got to make the same push.”
Niittymaki, a 23-year-old Finn, won for the second straight night in place of Robert Esche, expected to miss at least three weeks with a sprained left knee. Jeff Hackett, Philadelphia’s other experienced goalie, is sidelined indefinitely by vertigo.
After Gagne’s goal tied it at 1, the Flyers broke open the game by scoring twice in 32 seconds. Recchi beat Pasi Nurminen over the shoulder from near the end line with the Flyers on the power play at 12:54, a goal that gave him an eight-game point streak.
Kapanen then sent a floating shot from the slot over Nurminen to give the Flyers a 3-1 lead. Amonte completed the second-period rally when he was credited with a goal that actually bounced in off Atlanta defenseman Frantisek Kaberle with 42 seconds left.
LeClair completed the scoring with a wrist shot from the slot with 23.4 seconds remaining in the game.
“There’s been some peaks and some valleys,” Flyers captain Keith Primeau said. “Fortunately there’s been more peaks than there’s been valleys. We’re starting to find some consistency again with our game. We’ve worked hard to be where we are.”
The Thrashers are headed in the other direction. They’ve won only twice in 18 games.
“It’s definitely an uphill climb,” Atlanta center Marc Savard said. “We’re going to see who the real troupers are in here.”
Notes: Atlanta rookie defenseman Garnet Exelby won’t be taking part in this weekend’s YoungStars game, part of the NHL’s All-Star weekend festivities, He bruised his left ankle when hit by a shot during the morning skate Thursday. Exelby had been cleared to play against Philadelphia after missing six games with a hip contusion. ... Hackett is scheduled to play Friday night for the Flyers’ AHL affiliate to see if he has recovered sufficiently from “positional vertigo” to rejoin the NHL team. If he shows no symptoms, he will start for the Flyers in their first game after the All-Star break on Tuesday.
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