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Wednesday, February 4th (All times eastern)

Washington Capitals (17-30-5-2) at Philadelphia Flyers (26-12-11-5), 7 p.m.

(Sports Network) - The Philadelphia Flyers' goaltending situation continues to get even quirkier tonight when the club welcomes the Washington Capitals to the Wachovia Center.

In the midst of a battle for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Philly will be forced to start rookie netminder Antero Niittymaki, who will make his NHL debut. Veteran Jeff Hackett remains sidelined with vertigo, while regular starter Robert Esche suffered a sprained left knee in Monday's 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay. Esche is expected to miss at least three weeks.

Against the Lightning, Michal Handzus scored the lone goal for the Flyers, who fell for just the second time in nine games (6-2-1). Esche stopped all 10 shots he faced before leaving in the second period, but his backup, Neil Little, didn't fare as well. The career minor leaguer allowed goals on the first two shots he faced, but settled down after that to record six saves the rest of the way in his second-ever NHL appearance.

In the second period, Esche was plowed into by his own man, Simon Gagne, while Gagne was trying to get back to defend a 2-on-1. Esche tried to remain in the game, playing the next 1:35, but was forced to exit the contest with the left knee injury.

With 68 points, the Flyers lead New Jersey by one in the Atlantic Division race. They trail Toronto by one for the conference lead.

Philadelphia, which has dropped five of its last seven home contests, will visit Atlanta on Thursday to head into the All-Star break.

Washington, meanwhile, has won three of its last four games, including Tuesday's 2-1 decision over surging Tampa Bay at the MCI Center. Anson Carter finished with a goal and an assist and Maxime Ouellet made 38 saves to lead the effort.

Jeff Halpern scored for the Capitals, who snapped a three-game home losing streak.

Before the game the Capitals placed defenseman Sergei Gonchar on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Gonchar has missed the past five games and is expected to miss 2-to-4 weeks.

The Caps, who have won two straight on the road, will resume play after the break next Thursday in Carolina.

Philly is 2-0 against Washington this season, and has won eight of the last 10 meetings overall. The Capitals are 0-12-1 in their last 13 trips to the City of Brotherly Love, last winning on January 31, 1998.

02/04 10:11:14 ET


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